PACK to the Future: The Story Behind the Historical Exhibit at PACK EXPO Las Vegas

Take a journey through the history of packaging, explore milestones that shaped the present, and learn more about industry trends influencing the future.

Pack To The Future LogoBe sure to visit PACK to the Future, a packaging exhibit that has been nearly two years in the making, on display at PACK EXPO Las Vegas and Healthcare Packaging EXPO, September 27-29 in the North Hall of the Las Vegas Convention Center.

The exhibit traces the evolution of modern packaging from its roots in the Industrial Age to the present and explores current trends that are shaping the near future. The largest feature of the near 10,000 square foot exhibit is a timeline of packaging facts, images, artifacts, and machines spanning 250 years from the mid-1700s to the early 2000s. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) contributes an educational display on regulations that transformed package labeling. Presentations by packaging industry experts and business leaders on topics such as sustainability, smart packaging, and new technologies occur hourly each day on the PACK to the Future stage (schedule below). Corking tables at H.J. Heinz Company, 1901. Courtesy of H.J. Heinz Company Photographs, Detre Library & Archives, Senator John Heinz History Center.Corking tables at H.J. Heinz Company, 1901. Courtesy of H.J. Heinz Company Photographs, Detre Library & Archives, Senator John Heinz History Center.

From the beginning PMMI and curators of the exhibit Jack Aguero, president, Aguero Associates, and Brent Meyer, president, Meyer Communications, wanted PACK to the Future to be more than a “once-upon-a-time-in-packaging” citation of dates. They saw the project as a way to share some interesting educational stories and showcase many of the people who helped make the packaging industry what it is today.

Aguero and Meyer are quick to point out that PACK to the Future couldn’t have happened without the support of numerous people and organizations within and outside the packaging industry. An 11-member Advisory Board with packaging bona fides provided guidance and opened doors to their contacts at CPGs, machinery and materials companies, trade organizations, and universities. The 28 historic packaging and processing machines, dating from the late 1800s through the 1980s, are all contributed by machinery manufacturers. Hundreds of photos, facts, and stories are available for the exhibit because archivists at CPGs, museums, and other organizations generously shared content and time to work with Aguero and Meyer.

“A constant throughout this project has been the extraordinary enthusiasm and the willingness of people to give their time and share their resources and knowledge,” Aguero says. “I think it’s a testament to the people in our industry and the importance of these stories.”

Aguero credits this enthusiasm as one of the major reasons PACK to the Future stayed on track during the uncertainty created by the pandemic. The exhibit was originally planned for PACK EXPO International in 2020 but was postponed due to the pandemic. The delay created both challenges and opportunities.

“One of the biggest challenges on the project was that during the pandemic many people couldn’t access their archives or content in their offices,” Aguero says. “Despite the personal and professional uncertainty, they stuck with us and followed through.”

“The delay also gave us an opportunity to continue researching and locating new sources and information,” adds Meyer. “This extra time helped us fill in some gaps and uncover some great content. It was during the pandemic that Merck introduced us to contacts at the Smithsonian.”


   Listen to a brief, 15-minute UnPACKed Podcast in which host Sean Riley discussed the backstory behind the PACK to the Future exhibit with curators Jack Aguero and Brent Meyer. 


From PACK to the Future: A Sneak Peek

“Packaging has played a crucial role in the development of trade, commerce, the preservation of food, medicine and development of other products,” Aguero says. “Packaging and the development of civilization are intertwined. The betterment of mankind through packaging is a consistent theme. We hope people get the sense of that as they walk through the exhibit.” Margaret Knight’s flat-bottomed bag machine patent model. Courtesy of the Smithsonian, National Museum of American History.Margaret Knight’s flat-bottomed bag machine patent model. Courtesy of the Smithsonian, National Museum of American History.

“There are numerous innovations in materials or machinery that made food, healthcare and other products safer or even possible,” adds Meyer. “Gail Borden’s development of sweetened condensed canned milk was in direct response to his desire to save the lives of children  who didn’t have access to fresh milk. Borden and numerous people like him asserted themselves on the present to make the future better.”

One of the things that stands out in the exhibit is the prominent role women played in packaging from the very beginning. Margaret Knight, the first women to receive a U.S. patent, designed the first machine to make flat-bottomed paper bags in the 1870s. Before her invention, flat-bottomed bags were made by hand. The existing bag making machines, considered the first dedicated packaging machines, only made envelope-style bags which were limited in what they could hold. Knight, known as the “female Edison,” received 26 patents in her life in packaging and other industries.

Many people are aware that large numbers of women entered the workforce during the World Wars but aren’t aware that women began working in large numbers during the Industrial Age. Packaging was considered a well-paying job for women compared to many options. In the late 1800s and early 1900s many of the roles were filled by women. By 1907, more than one-third of the employees on Kellogg’s packaging lines were women. This was common in other companies as well. Heinz offered free weekly manicures and hot showers for women who worked their packaging lines in the late 1800s and early 1900s. It helped ensure food safety and was seen as a perk not offered by many jobs of the day.

Later in the mid-1900s, the numbers of women in the packaging industry dwindled. The return of women to packaging has slowly been increasing again in recent decades, particularly in leadership roles. PMMI will host a Packaging and Processing Women’s Leadership Network breakfast on Tuesday at PACK EXPO Las Vegas. Women packaging Kellogg’s Corn Flakes in 1931. Image courtesy of Kellogg’s Historical Archives.Women packaging Kellogg’s Corn Flakes in 1931. Image courtesy of Kellogg’s Historical Archives.

Aguero and Meyer also found that inspiration for packaging machinery and innovations didn’t always come from within the industry. Otto Rowedder, who invented the first machine to slice and wrap bread in 1927, was a jeweler. Clarence Birdseye, who invented the process and machinery for Quick Freezing, was a fur trader in Canada when he discovered that fish that was frozen almost immediately after being caught retained its flavor when thawed. John Van Wormer, the person who invented the paperboard milk carton and the machine to form, fill, and seal them in the 1920s was a toymaker. Fred E. Lins was a sausage maker who became a packaging machinery manufacturer after his FELINS string tying machine became a success in the 1920s. An early FELINS string tying machine is on display in the exhibit. The Swedish inventor of Tetra Pak, Ruben Rausing, was watching his wife make sausages by tying off the ends in the 1940s and wondered whether a similar system could be applied to milk. He came up with the iconic aseptic triangular tetrahedron paperboard-based package to store liquids without refrigeration.

In 1951, Tetra Pak launched their innovative tetrahedron package and machine that formed, filled and sealed a tube of milk in one continuous motion. Tetra Pak launched the first machine for aseptically filling bacteria-free milk in 1961. (Images courtesy of Tetra Pak.)In 1951, Tetra Pak launched their innovative tetrahedron package and machine that formed, filled and sealed a tube of milk in one continuous motion. Tetra Pak launched the first machine for aseptically filling bacteria-free milk in 1961. (Images courtesy of Tetra Pak.)Throughout the historical timeline there are threads of continuity, innovations that are still being used today, signs of gradual improvements, examples of persistence overcoming initial failures, and ideas waiting for technology to catch up. The first self-heating can was developed for soldiers during WWII but was deemed unsafe for the general public. Today mass produced self-heating packages are on the verge of reality. Paper bottles were first developed in the early 1900s and are now seeing a resurgence in the effort to improve sustainability.

“A surprising part of the story of packaging is how much our industry continues to resurrect a good idea whose best times may be yet to come,” Meyer says. “As we move toward a future with reusable containers and more natural textile, plant, or fiber-based materials, we are coming full circle by taking many of the concepts used in early packaging that were sustainable and making them better.”

“The ability of humankind to make things, faster, easier, efficient, convenient, and more sustainable is the story of packaging,” Aguero says. “As people walk the exhibit and listen to the speakers, we hope they not only take pride in what they see, but possibly experience the next great innovation in packaging.”Modicon created the first programmable logic controller (PLC) in the United States in 1968. See it in PACK to the Future machine exhibit courtesy of Schneider Electric. (Image courtesy of Schneider Electric.)Modicon created the first programmable logic controller (PLC) in the United States in 1968. See it in PACK to the Future machine exhibit courtesy of Schneider Electric. (Image courtesy of Schneider Electric.)

Aguero and Meyer point out that it’s impossible to fully tell all the stories they found or completely share the wealth of content in a temporary exhibit at PACK EXPO Las Vegas. PMMI is looking at repeating PACK to the Future at PACK EXPO International in Chicago in 2022. An audio tour that expands on some of the existing content is also in discussion.

But even in its current, inaugural format, the exercise has proven fruitful and rewarding. The two hope the exhibit conveys that “The Story of Packaging” is the story of people who saw a better way and made it happen—men and women who were makers and inventers, visionaries and innovators, risk takers and entrepreneurs. It’s a story about human imagination, competition, and cooperation, a story that’s shaped by, and a shaper of, progress.

The two ask you take a brief journey through some of the achievements and turning points and continuity that brought us here today. It is more than a collection of facts; it is a record of people who asserted themselves on the present to change the future.

“It is your story,” Aguero and Meyer conclude. “See you there.”

Schedule of presentations by packaging industry experts and business leaders on topics such as sustainability, smart packaging, and new technologies on the PACK to the Future stage.Schedule of presentations by packaging industry experts and business leaders on topics such as sustainability, smart packaging, and new technologies on the PACK to the Future stage.

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