The Big Empty Cardboard Box
The FedEx truck pulled up to my house and delivered it: a new kit of Storm Trooper armor for me to assemble. It’s something that I’ve been looking forward to, but not just for the reasons you might think.
A cardboard box is one of the more interesting modern inventions, but it goes virtually unnoticed. You probably have a stack of them in a closet, in your attic, basement, garage, or under your bed. They’re probably scrounged from your office after they get a delivery of copier paper, or left over from that time you moved. They travel through the air, by truck, train, and car, anonymously existing in the background of our lives.
I unpacked the box in my basement: it was large: two feet by four feet by two feet – plenty of space of a full kit of armor – and incredibly sturdy. By this point, my son had come home from daycare, and was asking to play on an iPad. I brought the box upstairs, and plunked it down in the living room.
Corrugated cardboard was first patented in 1856 and used originally as a hat liner. It wasn’t until 1871 that it was used for boxes. Like all great inventions, the idea came together by mistake: Brooklyn bag manufacturer Robert Gair accidentally cut a bag instead of creasing it, and realized that he could make a sturdy box from the process.
From the late 1800s, it began to replace wooden crates. It’s a simple thing: two pieces of liner sandwiching a piece of folded paper. The result is an air cushion that makes for a sturdy material that is ideal for the creation of a box.
Since then, they’ve captured the imagination of generations of adults, cats, and children, my son included. His eyes grew wide when the hit the floor. “For me?” he asked. He immediately jumped in, and it was no longer a cardboard box.
It was a space ship. He pointed to the rising moon out the window, and I asked him how he was getting there. He pointed to the box, and pretended to be an astronaut on a mission.
Next, it became a cave: he donned a hard hat with a light on it, and ordered me to close the flaps shut. He was exploring the unknown.
When he popped the flaps up, it was an ice cream parlor, with every type of ice cream imaginable.
I grew up reading Bill Watterson’s "Calvin and Hobbes," which exuberantly shows off how a simple cardboard box becomes an imaginary gateway for adventures and fun. It’s a duplicator, a time machine, transmorgifier, or a sales table.
There doesn’t seem to be too many huge cardboard boxes out there. When you go to a home goods store, the appliances are likely to be shrink-wrapped with plastic and foam, rather than those giant boxes that I enjoyed as a kid. But they’re still around, and I suspect that we’ll see them long into the future.
Spending a couple of hours with my son and a cardboard box affirmed the cliché: the box is sometimes more fun than the toy it carried. And as we travelled to the moon, under the Earth, and enjoyed some refreshing snacks, the iPad lay forgotten on the couch where we left it.