Packaging History: The Egg Carton

Design, as both a word and a career choice, is increasingly becoming associated more with problem-solving and less with mere aesthetics. Schools like NYU are incorporating courses specifically for this trend: “Design Thinking: A Creative Approach to Problem Solving and Creating Impact.” The syllabus for that course states: increasingly, the definition of design has expanded to include not just artifacts but strategic services and systems.” This syllabus defines “design thinking” as a method increasing employed across almost all industries. “Design thinking,” it continues, “is an iterative problem-solving process of discovery, ideation, and experimentation that employs various design-based techniques to gain insight and yield innovative solutions for virtually any type of organizational or business challenge, prominently including those within public service.”

This trend, though increasing now as industries grow and emerge exponentially along with technologies and populations, is not actually based on completely novel concepts. Design, at least in part, has always been about problem-solving. This has also been predominantly true in those industries which serve the public most directly. That’s where the story of the egg carton comes from directly. There was a problem and design led to a solution.

The problem was that eggs were being delivered in a basic, all thrown together against each other, and transported however long a distance in this method. This was during the time before automobiles, and just as automobiles were emerging onto global markets, meaning that these deliveries were likely made via horse-and-buggy or some other such rough-riding delivery method. This was also a time when road smoothness was at best inconsistent, with road pavement and standardization not reaching throughout the United States until about the 1920s, meaning that even if automobiles were used for delivery, the roads they were using were either unpaved, paved with disparate stones or planks, or a part of the new and as-yet-perfected paving practices.

The eggs didn’t stand a chance.

The legend goes that a hotel owner in Canada was frequently frustrated by fractured eggs arriving at his hotel, and insisted that there had to be a better way for transporting eggs than all jumbled into one basket. Before the egg-carton as we know it was created by the publisher of a local newspaper who reportedly accepted the challenge set by that hotel-owner, an interim design was tested on the market. Somewhere in between the designs of a carrying basket and the ultimately proliferated egg carton, the Raylite egg box was invented in Liverpool and entered the market sometime around 1906. It had a carrying handle and incorporated interlocking pieces of cardboard which created compartments for individual eggs; some images I’ve seen also used wood. You can see the design process at work in the evolution from the egg basket to the egg box and to what we ultimately ended up with, the egg carton.

The egg carton came about when Joseph Coyle, the aforementioned newspaper publisher, wrote out numerous invention ideas for solving the hotelman’s egg problem. He is also alleged to have invented his own version of a pocket cigar cutting device as well as an anti-theft device for the automobile.

His egg carton design utilized a similar multi-compartment structure so that individual eggs could be housed away from each other; but, he also incorporated more protection for the fragile eggs in the way of cushioning in the compartments. This further elevated his design over the Liverpool egg box. At first, he built his cartons by hand, but soon it was necessary for him to build a machine that would help him keep up with the increasing demand for his problem-solving design. According to The Globe and Mail, he “patented his idea in 1918. By 1919, he had sold his newspaper holdings and moved to Vancouver to focus on the new business.” Eventually, he lived and worked in Toronto, Chicago, and LA, bringing his egg cartons and the factories that produced them with him.

By the time he died in 1972, according to The Mail, “hundreds of millions of Coyle cartons had been produced.”

The carton has remained pretty much the same as far as basic design. The main changes have been expansion in order to hold more eggs and also in the materials used for the designs. The materials have changed according to other consumer and manufacturer problems, like the sturdiness and environmental impact. Distinct from the earlier egg box, that design which attempted to also solve the problem of the egg basket, Coyle’s design was such that each compartment was spaced and structured in order to “absorb shock and to prevent damage during transportation.”

What is most fascinating to me about this story is that Coyle himself had nothing to do with egg distribution and packaging before he took on the task of improving the situation. He merely heard about a problem and worked on possible ways that it could be solved. I’ve recently written a post about fostering creativity within a company that included advice to encourage and promote creativity on every level of a business. This, to me, is the perfect example as to why. Creativity and problem-solving can come from anyone. If a newspaper publisher can create one of the most recognizable pieces of packaging in the world today, there is no way to deny that a barista or a receptionist, a custodian or anyone could find the perfect design solution for a pervasive commercial (or otherwise) problem. Someone doesn’t have to be a designer to design a solution that could to some degree change the world. If that’s not motivating to you, I don’t know what will be.


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