In recent years the issue of waste materials being sent to landfills has become a concern. Excessive packaging, involving paper, cardboard, plastic (don’t get me going on those impossible to open blister packs) and other materials, seems to be the norm now. And at home, we have large plastic bags filled with smaller plastic bags, just waiting to be dropped off at any store that will actually take them for recycling (for some reason these plastic retail bags are not accepted in many recycling programs). So we use some for around the house cleaning projects, but most await the trip to some store’s recycling bin.
In the first half of the 19th century store purchases might be wrapped in some type of paper Shopping bags as we know them were not typically available. But what about purchases like a woman’s hat? You couldn’t easily wrap that up in butcher paper like some rib roast and expect it to survive the trip home intact. Enter the bandbox. No, not a small baseball stadium, but a cardboard box used to carry hats and other merchandise. Where’s the band, you ask? Well, the term derives from the original use for these in 17th century England—to store men’s detachable shirt collars (or “bands”).
Bandboxes were popular in America in the first half of the 19th century, and small shops manufactured these in cities across the land. Constructed of bentwood or more commonly pasteboard (thin cardboard) these oval boxes came in various sizes (some in our collection measure 12” X 18” X 12”) and were almost always covered in a colorful printed paper (often wallpaper). As such, they could not only serve as protective packaging for new purchases, but also double as a safe (and decorative) storage container thereafter. One could also reuse them for future purchases, similar to the reusable shopping bags now offered by most supermarkets. Not surprisingly, I have found occasional newspaper notices in the 1820s and 1830s mentioning lost or misplaced bandboxes (and presumably their contents).
Were bandboxes big business? It probably varied with the size of the market and the manufacturer, but it is telling that in 1839 the Hartford and New Haven Railroad specifically listed bandboxes in their freight shipping rate schedule: bandboxes could be shipped between the two cities at a rate of fifty cents per dozen.
Bandboxes gradually fell out of favor by the Civil War, and many apparently were saved in closets, attics and basements. Collectors began to appreciate the decorative paper coverings and today such boxes, especially those with a maker’s label, can bring hundreds of dollars at auction.
That’s all well and good, but as for me, I’m still going to recycle those blister packs!