Brown paper has the look and feel of tradition – a modern, industrial product that nonetheless reveals something of its material origins in wood pulp. It is a relatively functional ‘raw’ material, unrefined and undecorated, useful but disposable which has been familiar throughout the life-course of all currently living generations. In the traditional mode of wrapping, brown paper is the last material to be used on the outside to protect a parcel from the scuffs and rubs of the other packages it will share the space of transit with. But as the internet has brought more things to be delivered to our homes by couriers and postmen and women, its use has changed from being just a means of wrapping parcels. The plastic bag has become the preferred form of parcel wrapping when cardboard and plastic tape is not enough on its own but the material properties of brown paper mean that it is also well suited to the task of filling spaces in standardised cardboard boxes. Manufacturers often invest significantly in the packaging of the objects they sell with polystyrene shaped pieces to hold the object snugly inside precisely sized, rectangular cardboard boxes that are then sealed in plastic shrink-wrap. These manufacturers packagings are purpose-built using highgrade cardboard, often with see-through panels, and highly coloured and distinctively designed graphics. The packaging is functional in protecting the goods while at the same time showing them off and advertising their properties through images and text. The white fine-grade cardboard packaging that Apple’s gizmos are sold in is exemplary in the thought and the styling that goes into the careful folding of its manufacture. A rather more down market version of manufacturer packaging leaves out the rectangular box and uses two stiff plastic sheets welded together with a bulbous shape left for the object (these ‘blimp’ packs need scissors to open and are the type of packaging that most frequently leads to cut fingers; the plastic is sharp and unforgiving, especially once it is half open). But all these manufacturer’s packages have themselves to be protected when they are being mailed or couriered.
Retailers once used brown paper to wrap the goods you had bought. Large rolls of wrapping paper were kept on dispensers fitted to the wall or the counter with a metal blade resting on top against which to tear off a sheet of whatever size the shop assistant needed. Some retailers still use brown paper wrapping, especially luxury goods sellers who make a feature of the parcelling to indicate a nostalgic ‘craftiness’ quality in their goods. They may even use string to bind the parcel closed – though often as a supplement to sticky tape in a skeuomorphic transformation of the functional into the decorative. There is an acquired skill involved in the wrapping but most importantly there is a visible labour in specially wrapping the individual customer’s purchase. The investment of such human care and effort signals the value of the item – a value conferred by the seller and recognised by the buyer. The costly and time consuming work of wrapping is now usually reserved for glass and chinaware – sometimes wrapped in white paper, more often now in bubble wrap. Mind you, a second-hand bookshop I have used for many years, still makes a point of wrapping the books you’ve bought in brown paper parcels; it makes the book that might in another setting be valueless worth the price being paid. But most retailers have long ago opted for the plastic ‘carrier bag’, often with logos and brand names on the outside. Upmarket clothes shops show the value of their goods by selling them in a thick paper carrier bag with string or even material loops for handles – traditional materials once again indicating the value of the good and so the status of the consumer. A further indication of value is shown by carefully wrapping the garment in white tissue paper before it is reverently placed in the carrier.
The mail order companies are not concerned with getting their customers to walk down the high street showing off the brands of the goods and the shops they’ve been buying from. They have an enormous range of differently sized and shaped objects, often already wrapped in their manufacturers’ packaging, that need to be wrapped yet again for safe delivery. What are needed are clear labelling and a wrapping that will withstand being tossed about in a van or a sorting bin along with other packages, some of which are large and heavy. This is packaging not for selling or for seduction, but for function. It needs to be easy to do, to have sufficient cushioning inside to protect the object and be adaptable to a wide range of objects. Bubble wrap, which it seems originated as a form of three-dimensional wallpaper, has since the 1960s provided a plastic, ‘modern’ form of packaging that replaces the simple brown paper parcel and the wrapping of things in newsprint. Those brown paper parcels for posting, that survived well into the 1980s, demanded considerable skill on the part of the wrapper and were originally tied up with string, then later with sticky tape. The brown paper protected the object in the parcel against friction with other objects but was not much good for protecting items against impact. The cardboard box, especially one made with corrugated cardboard, provides much better impact resistance and has since the end of the nineteenth century been used to contain many types of items for transit. The cardboard box can be made to contain many similar items – boxes of detergent or biscuits, bottles of wine or of cleaning fluids – for transport between supplier and retailer. But unlike the wholesaler’s packaging, it is not multiple similarly shaped items but separate, different, individual items that need to be packaged and sent to homes from on-line shopping warehouses. The items from the same warehouse selling, say, electrical goods, come in all shapes and sizes, with different weights and dimensions. But the cardboard boxes for transit are made of a few standard sizes and in them things can move about, vulnerable to their own weight and vulnerable to any crushing impact on the box.
Bubble wrap is sometimes used as a spacing material but while it gives good impact protection it is not flexible in expanding and contracting to fill the space – the packer simply has the option of using more, often much more than is needed for cushioning. Some packers use a chain of large plastic bubbles or a filling of polystyrene shapes to provide both void filling and protection against crushing. The plastic shapes have to be burst for easy disposable and, like the polystyrene chips, are very unlikely to be recycled. Polystyrene chips can be a nightmare for the consumer; outdoors they can blow about and indoors they can stick with electrostatic attraction to clothes, furniture and carpets. But brown paper is cheap, can be recycled or reused and can be easily crumpled to fit irregular spaces by the packer. It can be stuffed loosely and haphazardly, allowing the material to take up creases in different directions so that it cushions in many ways with a ‘give’ that is not bouncy but can be quite firm, especially when the paper is stiff and sufficient is used. A crumpled sheet of newspaper is much more easily compressed as the object moves around in the box, it is messy to handle and its merit in being a recycling of a discarded material is countered by the visible trace of its former use. The new thing wrapped in old news. Newsprint, used or clean, is too soft and too much needs to be used, which means there is a lot more work in packing and unpacking and in the end, less cushioning if the parcel is dropped… or thrown.
So traditional brown paper wrapping paper has come back into its own as an internal pack material that is cheap, recyclable and effective. It is the relative stiffness of the paper that makes it so useful in packing objects into a box. The crumpled brown paper displays its functionality and unlike strings of plastic bubbles, presents the receiver with something easily returnable to a flat form that can be then recycled through the rubbish collection. And of course brown paper can be also be reused for packaging. When it was used for wrapping parcels, after receipt and unwrapping, it was frequently kept folded flat in a drawer ready to be brought back into use when another parcel had to be sent. Now the crumpled brown paper used to fill space and provide a cushion, can be refolded and stored more easily than bubble wrap. It is more recyclable, much easier than any plastic material to return to a pulp that can be reformed or rotted away (…though at the cost of releasing greenhouse gases). It can be re-used for wrapping but it can also be used for other purposes. Those might include; children’s drawings, lining drawers and cake tins, as protection for a table when painting… and maybe even, with some vinegar, mending broken crowns.