A scene that might have been, from the movie "The Graduate":
At a party, a businessman sidles up to young Dustin Hoffman, a clueless, recent college graduate, and whispers some advice.
"Corrugated cardboard," he says. "There's a great future in corrugated cardboard."
I often wish I'd invested in corrugated cardboard before catalog and Internet sales took off, before FedEx and eBay and Amazon became household words, and before Third-World countries began consuming with all-American gusto.
Last week we collected dozens of corrugated cardboard boxes in which to pack my mother-in-law's things, bound from Florida to Michigan on a rental truck. I realized you had to move fast to get boxes from liquor stores: The boxes are so bulky that the staff flattens them quickly. And I realized many supermarkets won't give you cardboard egg crates anymore, the great ones with handles.
"Salmonella," a clerk said to us. "The risk is too high."
I also realized a corrugated cardboard box lasts forever. We packed several we found in closets that appeared to be family heirlooms. One was labeled "STUFFED ANIMALS."
I realized the box I packed with "CRYSTAL & MISC. ANTIQ " might later ship a birthday gift to Omaha, then a Christmas gift to Roanoke, then transport old videotapes to a library sale, then carry unsold tapes to the town dump, then be taken home to hold someone's unsorted family photos in a closet until the Second Coming.
In our basement right now is an example, a box that began its life holding Hellerware, whatever that is. In 1977, when I moved to San Francisco, I wrote AGER/FRISCO on it. It held PICS. Later, I numbered it box 37 (circled), intended for the BMT (basement). It now holds LETTERS, CALENDARS, ADDRESS BOOKS, which no one may look at until I'm dead.
You don't have to be saving things to love a cardboard box. The big ones kids play in are flattened by the homeless to sleep on.
The cardboard box doesn't need to reinvent itself for new, glitter-prone generations. Plain, brown and sturdy was plenty good for our grandparents and will remain good enough for our grandchildren.
And cardboard boxes still come cheap. A site like www.CentrallPack.com will sell you any of 600-plus sizes and styles (in white or the color they call kraft). A foot-square plain brown box costs 51 cents, less than the worst cup of coffee.
We might imagine everything was shipped in cardboard boxes since Adam and Eve moved out of the Garden of Eden. But until about 150 years ago, packaging consisted of a) paper wrapping or b) a wooden crate lined with straw.
Corrugated cardboard originated in England in the mid-1800s after the hand-cranked presses used to pleat men's cuffs and collars were adapted to pleat the paper lining inside men's tall hats. The pleats were sturdier and cushioned a hat's sweatband.
Pleated paper was then used to wrap bottles and glass lantern chimneys. By the turn of the 20th century, U.S. box-makers sandwiched pleated paper between stiff paper to create corrugated cardboard. (Last night's pizza box will show you what I mean.)
Today, the United States manufactures 11 times more corrugated cardboard than it did in 1940, even though the population has yet to triple.
All I know is that it's time for me to stop hoarding cardboard boxes in my basement. They're everywhere! And usually, if your timing's right, they're free for the asking, piled back by the dumpster.
Knight Ridder Newspapers