• Otter Views: Boxed In: Or, Lessons in Box Flap Cohesion

    A recent cross-town move ushered me once again into the familiar domain of cardboard boxes. Every move requires them, and I usually wind up needing many more than I thought.

    In years past, this has meant climbing into dumpsters or skulking through service alleys behind supermarkets and shopping centers. Useable packing boxes can be found there, but they often smell faintly of lamb chops or cauliflower.

    This time I lucked out. In the interim since my previous move, I found work at a place where clean, strong, sturdy cardboard boxes arrive daily. I started pirating these and hoarding them out in the alley. At day’s end, I’d stack them up in tower form and carry them back to the apartment, zigzagging along like a novice in a balancing act.

    It would have been smarter to slice the boxes open at top and bottom, collapse them for portage and retape later. But I cannot replicate the ruler-edge precision of the master commercial tapers. When I work with packing tape, bad things happen quickly.

    So I left most boxes intact, packed them full, and taped the top flaps closed. When the tape ran out, I would bend the last flap under the next-to-last one, and the boxes still closed up tight as barnacles.

    All of this carrying, packing, taping and bending renewed my appreciation of cardboard. What a material! Strong as The Hulk, yet flexible as Yogananda. Lighter than balsa, yet sturdy enough to transport a meteorite collection. Cheap to manufacture, yet durable enough to last decades. And so recyclable that most cardboard is now made from other cardboard.

    It wasn’t always so. Wikipedia claims the Chinese made a stiff paperboard in the 1500s for packing and transport purposes. But true “fluted corrugated fiberboard” didn’t show up until 1856, when an Englishman compressed paper into accordion-style pleats. This made it strong enough to stiffen that era’s lofty “stovepipe” hats.

    Other breakthroughs followed. In 1871, it says here, one Albert Jones of New York City further strengthened the fluted paper by gluing a flat cardboard backing onto it. This soon led to “sandwich” and “honeycomb” variants that sealed the corrugated paper between two flat panels, thereby creating a marvel of structural engineering.

    Viewed end-on, cardboard looks like thousands of tiny waves or pup tents that “correspond to the arches in an aqueduct,” as one Wiki contributor noted. This light-weight combination of paper and air boasts “great stability and immense load-bearing capacity,” adds another.

    Strength and stability, yes. But you notice these sources don’t mention box flap cohesion. That awaited the fail-safe plastic packing and strapping tapes of more recent vintage. As little as 60 years ago, glue held most cardboard boxes together. This system worked well if the boxes stayed dry. But then, as now, it always rains on moving day.

    A highlight of my early childhood was witnessing my taciturn, mild-mannered dad cut loose with the bluest, loudest, vilest, most sustained bellow of cursing I have yet heard. The occasion was a moving day, so of course it rained. Only a light rain – a drizzle, really – but enough to soften the glue sealing the bottom of cardboard boxes.

    My dad had packed a very large one of these brim-full with all the kitchen condiments and bottled “miracle” products of a modern 1950s American household. The damp glue held as he lifted the box. It held as he staggered from the driveway toward the house. It held as he propped the box on one hip to open the door.

    But when he stepped onto the pantry’s unforgiving concrete floor, the glue gave out, and the box instantly buckled and emptied from beneath. Bottles of mayonnaise, mustard, catsup, salad dressing, pickle relish and Worcestershire sauce exploded at his dancing feet. Bins of sugar and flour upended onto a slick of cooking oil, bacon grease and fallen Crisco.

    Holding the slack, broken box, my dad stood in amazement for a beat and surveyed the carnage.

    Then he said: %$#@$*@/.%CK#<<(*&%$@#>ZXXX!!!!!

    Cardboard also figured in happier childhood pursuits. If you could assemble enough of it, you could build a fort or a crawl-through city. Grocery boxes became ungainly robot costumes at Halloween. And when opened up and de-stapled, big appliance or furniture boxes provided slick and speedy sledding down grassy hills.

    These Bluto-sized boxes also starred in junior high drama productions. Artfully cut, strapped and painted, they became houses, hills, yellow brick roads and castle walls; cars, trains, boats and (flightless) planes. One year we discovered that the super strong cardboard tubes used to roll up carpets made ideal tree trunks.

    You yourself have doubtless put cardboard to many other creative and rewarding uses, much as architects use it for modeling. I would go on, but I need to unpack some boxes.

    posted to Cedar Street Times on November 14, 2014

    Topics: Otter Views


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