#19 Cardboard

August 24, 2016

John Hodgman hoards boxes, but he’s not okay with it – yet.

The Facts

Surprisingly Awesome’s Theme Music is “This is How We Do” by Nicholas Britell and our ad music is by Build Buildings. We were edited this week by Annie-Rose Strasser, and produced by Rachel Ward, Christine Driscoll and Elizabeth Kulas.

Jacob Cruz, Cheyna Roth, Emma Jacobs, Rikki Novetsky, Anna Stitt and NPR West and WERU in Blue Hill, Maine provided production assistance. Additional music came from Danca, Nathan Michel, and Marmoset.

Andrew Dunn mixed the episode.

Learn More

If you love math and pizza-related explanations, check out Samuel Hansen’s podcast Relatively Prime at RelPrime.com

If you can’t get enough cardboard, check out the amazing art of Ann Weber; her work has appeared at civic buildings and all around the world.

Oh wait, you thought Robert Gair was the most interesting part of the episode? Well, you can read more about him and his impact on New York’s landscape in this NYT article. 

And, finally… it turns out H. Allen Smith was a successful humorist in his own right and has a pretty fascinating bibliography in addition to a career as a chili cook-off champ. At press time, we can only provide a link to his Wikipedia page as it has indeed, come to that.

Show transcript

JOHN HODGMAN: So guess what I got in the mail?

RACHEL WARD: Is it a riveting and floridly written origin story of a late 19th century captain of industry?

JOHN: Yeah– A copy of H. Allen Smith’s – I’m going to say best selling book, Robert Gair: A Study. Let me read to you what I learned.

JOHN: This is what it says here “we know only his name was Sam.” I’m quoting now. Sam had set a type rule too high in the printing form on his press. The weight of his great sin lay heavily upon him. He was undone. His job was gone. In his arms he carried 20,000 seed bags – that would never hold seed, for each had been neatly slit across the face by that Satan-placed type rule. There was no glimmer of hope in Sam’s heart has he confessed his sin, the sin that was sacrilege in the eyes of Robert Gair, wastefulness. Robert Gair sat with his eyes fixed on the bags, a deep frown wrinkled his brow. Look out, here it comes! Go back to your press, said the boss, slowly. And if you ever make a mistake like this again, you’re fired.

JOHN: From Gimlet Media, this is Surprisingly Awesome, I’m John Hodgman.

RACHEL: And I’m Rachel Ward, and what you heard John reading up there is the biography of the man who invented the topic of today’s show: CARDBOARD BOXES.  

RACHEL: So that blunder, with the press that ruined all of those seed bags, it was an INSPIRATION to Robert Gair. John, back to the biography please:

JOHN: The clean incisions across the seed bags struck the eye of Robert Gair at a moment when his mind was ready and receptive for the sight. It came to him in a flash.

RACHEL: He could build a machine to cut and crease cardboard so that you could FOLD boxes, instead of gluing them! And that was a big change, because up until this moment, boxes were made by hand. Cut out by hand, they were glued together by hand, a lot of times by the hands of women and children.

JOHN: The way nature intended it.

RACHEL: I mean, kids do have those tiny little hands, so they’re good at that kind of thing.  No, sorry clearly Surprisingly Awesome does not condone child labor. So it was a GOOD thing when Robert Gair changed the cardboard box industry forever, in 1890.  And John perhaps more importantly, another thing that Robert Gair revolutionized  … dramatic pause here … CRACKERS.

JOHN: Oh?  Do tell.

RACHEL: Prior to Robert Gair the way that you accessed crackers was via barrel.

JOHN: Like the restaurant Cracker Barrel.

RACHEL: Correct.

JOHN: That’s named for that thing.

RACHEL: Right.

JOHN: Alright, I get it.

RACHEL: Crackers travelled from cracker factory to cracker retail point in a barrel and a clerk would dip his grubby 19th century hands into these cracker barrels and they would put crackers in a bag and then you would run them home. The best case scenario is they get stale. The worst case scenario is they get moldy and the thing that’s definitely going to happen is that the bottom of the cracker barrel is just cracker dust at that point.

JOHN: Yes, yes, yes, and then Robert Gair got his big break, with a contract to make the boxes for Uneeda Biscuit. That became part of National Biscuit Company — we know them as Nabisco — Look, we all learned about this in school during mandatory reading sessions of Robert Gair: A Study. But, Rachel, I would argue that it changed the world for worse, because when was the last time you had the exquisite pleasure of handling a handmade barrel.

RACHEL: I have spent zero time with barrels.

JOHN: Yeah barrels are wonderful. It’s a craftsperson who puts together the staves of a barrel and binds them with a quarter hoop and a bilge hoop and a hoop fastener and of course the best thing about a barrel which cardboard and paperboard never have: Is a bung hole. This is where we get bung hole from.

JOHN: A bung hole is the hole in the side of the barrel and you stop it up with a wooden cork called a bung. Anyway, what I’m saying is: craftspeople made barrels, not machines.  Do you know anyone whose last name is Cooper?

RACHEL: Like the guy from Twin Peaks?

JOHN: Yeah. You know what that means? Barrel maker. Cooper is a barrel maker.

RACHEL: Right, right, a cracker destroyer.

JOHN: Ohh. That was a livelihood, a craft, an artisan’s occupation.

RACHEL: I hear your concern about something beautiful and handmade being lost. But I’m going to argue that cardboard boxes are in their own way, beautiful.

JOHN: They’re very useful. But what we’re talking about here is what is awesome and what is un-awesome. I’m just making the point that they’re not awesome. They’re boring and in fact I would even say pernicious. And I currently have a huge cache of old cardboard box – a huge midden of cardboard boxes shoved underneath a staircase in my garage  and A, I’m concerned it’s going to spontaneously combust and burn me and my family. And B, it makes me anxious because I know I have to get in there before it combusts and break all of that down and bring it to the recycling center which I resent because now I have a whole extra spare job in my life. In addition to all my other jobs and podcasts. I have a chip on my shoulder. I have a cardboard chip on my shoulder about cardboard right now.

RACHEL: Well, John, today’s show is going to fix that. I’ve got a plan in which in THREE ACTS, I’m going to tell you ALL ABOUT cardboard. And I’m going to find something for you to love about it. We’re going to talk about history. Environmentalism. AMERICA. I am going to get you OVER the barrel, and ON BOARD with cardboard.

JOHN: OK, I refuse to respond to those puns.

RACHEL: Um, I’m sorry. The guy who has a “cardboard chip” on his shoulders won’t acknowledge my puns? That is extremely rude. But it’s actually a good place to start.  So for my first act: What exactly is that chip on your shoulder made out of?

JOHN BALLENTINE: We have to call it corrugated…Packaging guys are strange. They like for things to be called as they are. Cardboard is the paper they use to make playing cards. And corrugated is the corrugated material that you use to make boxes from.

RACHEL: So we need to get our terms right here. Corrugated is a specific type of cardboard. And this is John Ballentine. He’s a Surprisingly Awesome listener and he suggested that we do this episode. He’s been working in the box and packaging trade for 25 years.

JOHN: Wait a minute, I didn’t realize that he was the one who suggested this episode. So now we just let any listener who’s got a maniac obsession with a boring thing dictate our editorial policy?

RACHEL: Yeah well sure if you graduate from the PREMIER CARDBOARD COLLEGE in the United States!

BALLENTINE: Clemson University. It’s still going very strong there. They’re one of the few programs in the US that teaches packaging science.

JOHN: Would you say that it is the number one packaging science program in higher education in the United States?

BALLENTINE: Without a doubt.   

JOHN: Alright now look, just talking to me, John to John, is it the best program in the country or what.

BALLENTINE: It is. It really is.

JOHN: Does it have a big rival?


JOHN:  It does?

BALLENTINE: Of course the big rival is Michigan State.

RACHEL: And that’s what we call TENSION in the podcasting biz. But back to corrugate – in the CARDBOARD biz, they make a distinction between it and “paperboard.” And this is my first argument: Cardboard — corrugated — is awesome on a technical level. How it’s made, and what happens it it AFTER it’s made, is really, really interesting. So here’s how it’s made. John told us the analogy he uses is that corrugated boxes are built like a sandwich: It’s two slices of bread and a filling in the middle. And that filling and the bread, those are all made out of paperboard.

BALLENTINE: So the paper that makes the top of the bread.  And then the paper that makes the bottom of the bread would be the outside liner. And that’s the outside of the box. And then the S, the wavy part of the inside, right, that’s called the flute. And the paper that’s used to make up the flute is called medium.  

JOHN: OK listener you get it? Flat paper outside, wavy paper inside — two great tastes that go great together. That is corrugated.

RACHEL: And so for the rest of the episode, when I say “cardboard” — that’s the image that you should have in your head. We’re actually talking about corrugated, because corrugated is really special — it’s actually really really STRONG because of that design.

JOHN: How many bricks can you stack on top of a corrugated box?

BALLENTINE: Well, if you build a box right. one little piece of paper that might weigh a half a pound or a few ounces can literally hold several thousand pounds. You could stack a car on top of a box.

JOHN: We went from bricks to cars?

BALLENTINE: You can imagine that a car might be heavier than a brick, right?

JOHN: So adding corrugation to cardboard was really a massive change in the technology of cardboard.


RACHEL: So here’s another magical thing about cardboard. Not only does it have super strength from this fairly simple design, it’s actually kind of surprisingly green. John, I know this is one of your concerns that your basement cardboard hoard – if you go to the trouble of recycling it, does that it even matter?

JOHN: Yeah I’m recycling it for two reasons. One, so it doesn’t catch on fire in my home and instead catches fire in someone else’s home. So it’s self preservation. And then global self preservation, it seems to me that my garage cardboard midden is just a drop in this endless cardboard sea that’s out there. Isn’t this terrible for our planet?

RACHEL: Ok, so John, our Clemson grad, he can put you at ease about this a little bit. In the

the United States at least, the “recovery rate” so how much cardboard gets recycled after going out into the world, it’s about 70 to 80 percent.

BALLENTINE: It’s an incredibly high recovery rate compared to other packaging materials or other materials as a whole.  So all of those boxes, old corrugated containers, OCC, go back and are made into other paper materials.

JOHN: What was the term you used?  OCC?

BALLENTINE: OCC.  Old corrugated containers.

JOHN: Those are what I have underneath my stairs?

BALLENTINE: You do. You have a pile of them. They’re worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $50 a ton.

JOHN: Oh. I didn’t realize i’m sitting on a fraction of a fraction of a goldmine.

RACHEL: Yeah you’re a thousandth of a millionaire. But back to the second life of a box.

BALLENTINE: So the process of taking old boxes and making new boxes is you repulp the old boxes. So you put them in a big vat, grind them up with water, and then run it back through the papermaking machine. Incidentally, each one of the fibers in your old corrugated container can be recycled up to seven times.

JOHN: What happens after seven?

RACHEL: So after seven times, the fibers in the paper pulp get too short. So, every time you recycle those boxes, they get shorter and shorter.

JOHN: And what does that do to the boxes?

RACHEL: It makes the boxes crappier. So paper made out of those shorter, weaker fibers makes boxes that are softer and weaker.

JOHN: I see, so how do you keep the fibers long and strong?

RACHEL: You gotta add new wood to the pulp. When you’re making your paper. It’s called virgin fiber.

JOHN: Ok, so you have to add more and more virgin fiber into the fiber stream to go along with the recycled fiber and if you didn’t add this new fiber and just recycled the old fiber over and over again, what would happen?

BALLENTINE: So if we put no new fiber into this corrugated box stream, we’d run out of boxes in 75 days. There would not be enough fiber left to make any more corrugated boxes in 75 days.

JOHN: That sounds like the plot of an apocalypse thriller.

BALLENTINE: Well since you’re saving boxes in your basement, those boxes would be extremely valuable after those 75 days.

JOHN: Maybe it would even go up to 55 dollars per ton.

BALLENTINE: Maybe… more… than that.

RACHEL: And John there’s actually real, international demand for our OCC — especially from China — BECAUSE we’re adding virgin fiber into our paper mix so…

JOHN: Alright, hang on but before you go on I want to hear this but I just want to say remember how you made all those terrible puns before?

RACHEL: Uh, terrible is debatable yeah.

JOHN: Yeah, well I want to congratulate us all on our restraint, uh, that we did not make a joke regarding OCC and being down with it as in you down with OCC.

RACHEL: If anyone is down with OCC it’s you with your hoard in your basement.

JOHN: I got all that OCC in my garage and you’re saying that China loves my boxes? Why?

RACHEL: Because our fibers are great.  

JOHN: How are our fibers better than theirs?

RACHEL: I mean not to be all Donald Trump about it but because we have the best trees! We have the most trees; we’ve got these trees that have really long strong fibers. They’re called softwood trees, like pines. And they thrive in cold climates. So Sweden’s got a ton of ‘em. We’ve got a ton of ‘em here in North America.

JOHN: Yeah in New England there’s a lot of pine forests and that’s why there’s so many paper mills up there. My grandfather worked in one in Fitchburg, Massachusetts.

RACHEL: Yeah, in the United States, we FARM paper trees, they’re a crop and we’ve been doing it for a long time. So we have a ton of forest stock.

JOHN: So China is importing our boxes because we have the best trees and we have the most trees and they don’t.

RACHEL: Right. And when they import those boxes, they don’t put stuff in them. They recycle them – hence the interest in longer stronger fibers. They use our boxes as a raw material.  Because, as I mentioned before, cardboard boxes, and ours in particular, are a TECHNICAL achievement! The Emmy for Technical Achievement in Boxes goes to America!

JOHN: Uh. So is cardboard a force for good or evil.

BALLENTINE: Of course it’s a force for good.  Absolutely a force for good. If we didn’t have the force of corrugated boxes, just imagine how crushed things would arrive at the marketplace. Your TV would be broken. Potato chips, oh my goodness, your potato chips would be all smashed in the bag when you got them. Definitely a force for good.

JOHN: Well sure, the guy who went to CLEMSON thinks cardboard is a force for good.

RACHEL: So we gotta talk to somebody from Michigan State, right?

JOHN: Well, obviously. If there’s a rivalry we have to pit them against each other.

JOHN: Now I have heard that Michigan State University Packaging Sciences Department is second only to Clemson University.

DIANA TWEDE: Oh come on. We are the Harvard of packaging.  

RACHEL: Go Spartans!

JOHN: Go rivalry!

RACHEL: This is Diana Twede. She works at Michigan State and she wrote a book called Cartons, Crates, and Corrugated Board. And she’s going to help me make my second argument about how awesome cardboard is: it’s that cardboard is a SURVIVOR. That at a critical moment in history, cardboard went up against THE MAN — and cardboard WON.  

JOHN: The history of cardboard, well I do love the history of things.

RACHEL: So you remember that sandwich analogy that we were talking about earlier?

JOHN: Right corrugated cardboard is two pieces of paperboard at the bread with wavy cardboard in the middle – that’s the meat.

RACHEL: So when corrugated was first patented, in 1871, by a man named A. L. Jones, it was actually just an on open-faced sandwich.

DIANA: He only invented what we call single face corrugated board. And that was used for years for wrapping bottles before anybody ever thought of sticking the second face to the board. It wasn’t until the patents ran out that they had to come up with something else to do with it. But once they came up with the idea of sticking the second face onto the board, they realized that it was a strong enough material that you probably could use it for shipping.  

RACHEL: And so the fledgling cardboard box industry goes to the railroads, the way things were shipped at the time, and they’re like let’s do this! But they get pushback.

DIANA: And the railroads at first refused because they figured the boxes were too flimsy.

JOHN: I thought it was because they thought cardboard was witchcraft.

DIANA: No, but they did have a secret agenda.  


DIANA: At first they were worried that the boxes weren’t going to be strong enough. And that was a pretty significant worry because it as a non standardardized material and who knows what anybody was going to make it out of.

RACHEL: So the authorities that regulated shipping let the railroads levy tariffs. A LOT of tariffs.

DIANA: And this got to be so bad towards 1910 or so that western railroads were charging as much as 400 percent more for carrying goods in corrugated boxes than if they were in wooden boxes.

RACHEL: And so this was really stifling the growth of the corrugated industry.

DIANA: And it turned out that little secret agenda was that when the government gave the land to the railroads, they gave them the land that’s alongside of the rails.  And so they had a lot of forests.

RACHEL: Which the railroads needed for wood – so they could make railroad ties. And to make railroad ties, they needed saw mills. So the railroads have a lot of trees, and a lot of sawmills.

DIANA: And once the railroad was through town then they used those sawmills for making boxes.

JOHN: I’m trying to follow the money here. The railroad owned forest land, you would think that they would want there to be more paper production in the United States and more cardboard right?

DIANA: Well, they would want here to be more wood production because they got a saw mill.

JOHN: Ohhhhhhhh I gotcha.

DIANA: So it was a huge battle between the railroad carriers and the corrugated industry.  

RACHEL: And then that battle came to a head.. The way Diana describes it in her book is that an “angry boxmaker” sued some of the railroads for discriminating against his boxes. And in 1914 he WON. The Interstate Commerce Commission ruled that there was no difference between wood and fiber boxes.  It was a, quote, “complete victory.” Another writer called it “Fourth of July for the industry.” So, Fourth of July for boxes.

DIANA: the government said unequivocally the railroads have to carry goods in corrugated boxes and they cannot charge more for carrying those goods but at the same time they gave to both industries the requirement that they had to make some standards about how strong those boxes were going to be.

RACHEL: So about those standards. In a way they persist to this day. And this is gonna be an interactive part for listeners. I’m going to show you something that’s basically a relic from this moment in 1914 when boxes battled the railroads. Listeners, pause for a second to go find the nearest box that was used for shipping.  We’ll be here when you get back.

RACHEL: John you’re in studio so you’re going to have to use your imagination. Imagine you’re in your garage and you’re turning over one of those boxes.

JOHN: They’ll all come crashing down on top of me.

RACHEL: Right and then when your family finds you 4 or 5 days later they’ll turn over one of those boxes and they will see a souvenir of that century-over fight of the railroads and cardboard.

JOHN: Bloodstains.

RACHEL: No. What you’ll see is a little round seal that certifies the box’s EDGE CRUSH TEST.

JOHN: What is the Edge Crush Test?

RACHEL: So remember how the railroads were worried about the strength of boxes?  The Edge Crush Test is a response to that. S back in 1914 when the Interstate Commerce Commission ruled in favor of the box industry, the concession the industry had to make was to develop a way to measure the strength of a box. And the first version of this was the Mullen Burst Test … it was eventually replaced by the Edge Crush Test.  Which is that seal you see now.   So that’s how the ECT harkens back to the moment when BOXES CRUSHED CRATES.

JOHN: That’s not the way we ever played it on the schoolyard. Crates crush cardboard and shrinkwrap wraps both. But OK, if you say so.

RACHEL: One two three shoot. No, okay I’ve got one more thing to tell you about the edge crush test that seal on boxes.  So the seal says a couple of things: It says how much weight the box can withstand. It says WHO made the box. And WHERE.  For example, earlier I found the three boxes, just the ones that were closest to me and turned them over. And as I did that, I learned that each had a unique journey of its own … from the gently rolling hills of Louisville, Kentucky, one came from the former capital of the Confederate States of America, Richmond, Virginia … and one from Biglerville, Pennsylvania.

JOHN: Oh Rachel you are really following in H. Allen Smith’s footsteps with this epic tale of the box’s life.

RACHEL: For the record Biglerville Pennsylvania is home to the National Apple Museum. But thank you John, I am HONORED to be mentioned in the same breath as H. Allen Smith.

JOHN: Tell me more and please be as verbose as Mr. Smith.

RACHEL: You know what for that maybe I won’t tell you. Maybe I’ll just option it to Pixar.

JOHN: Yeah it’s funny how Pixar hasn’t made an animated film about sentient packaging yet. I mean they made that’s your Toy Story 4 right there, right? It’s all the stuff the toys come in.

RACHEL: I mean, I think it’s a prequel. Because it’s —

JOHN: Oh right, that’s a good point.. But the hero of the prequel of course would be Wooden Barrel and his friend Wooden Crate fighting against encroaching evil Corrugated Cardboard.

RACHEL:  I’m still making the case that cardboard boxes are heroic. They should be the stars of this movie that will in no way ever get greenlit.  And I’m going to tell you more about that — and how it relates to those states you see on that ECT seal — after the break.

RACHEL: Welcome back to Surprisingly Awesome from Gimlet Media. I’m Rachel Ward.

JOHN: And I’m John Hodgman.

RACHEL: OK, So John, you have talked a very big game about boxes being less awesome than barrels.

JOHN: Yes. I did.

RACHEL: And so to convince you that boxes are awesome, I’ve been trying to appeal to your interest in the history, by telling you about how the dastardly railroads conspiring to crush the box, but boxes prevailed. I appealed to your patriotism, by showing that American trees are the best. We have the best trees. And I was sort of poking you in your environmental guilt by showing you that boxes are super recyclable, so now we are at the final leg of my argument: And that is that boxes are surprisingly local! Most boxes are used within 150 miles of where they’re made. So that’s why we see those state names on ECT seals. Stuff gets made overseas, shipped to a distribution center somewhere in the U.S., and then those distribution centers ship the items to you, in boxes made in Louisville, Richmond or Biglerville.

JOHN: So when I hold that cardboard box in my hand. I’m holding a piece of american commerce made by American hands, employing American workers using American trees. I mean if I’m holding a cardboard box, it’s making America great again.

RACHEL: And here’s one of those American hands. Attached to American bodies. Here.

MATT ROSTEN: This is an emergency order right here.  

RACHEL: BOX EMERGENCY! This is Matt Rosten — he’s the sales manager at Bell Container.  And he’s turning around this emergency order, super fast.

MATT: Today they had planned to run only heavy paper but i’ve got a bakery who needs boxes overnight basically, so right here they’re making this one order of a very light material and then right back into heavy.

RACHEL: This emergency box order is being shipped from Bell Container’s factory in Newark, New Jersey.  Which is a local, artisanal … box factory.

JOHN: First of all, I don’t understand why they don’t have an alarm going off like a klaxon now, if there’s a box emergency. But so Bell Container is one of the many small family-owned box companies that make this an artisanal local product. Is that right?

RACHEL: Yup. We sent our producers Elizabeth Kulas — she’s an Australian accent you’re going to hear — and Christine Driscoll — that’s the thick Buffalo, New York accent — out to Bell to meet the box artisans. And so they pull up to Bell Container, and the first thing they see is a ROW of sports cars parked out front. Each one is in a space that has a sign that says “This space reserved for” and it’s got some guy’s name printed on it.

CHRISTINE DRISCOLL: I just want to point to point out the names of everyone we’re meeting with there’s a Porsche, three Mercedes, and an Audi…

RACHEL: And when you get inside …

CHRISTINE: This is a very 1950s style office building

ELIZABETH KULAS: Very much so.

CHRISTINE: There’s wood paneling,

CHRISTINE: This is very old school. We have an oil portrait of Edward Daspin, we’re meeting I think his son in a little bit.

RACHEL: So John, actually I think you’re going to like this. In addition to family portraits, there was a plaque dedicated to one of the founders of Bell Container, Max Bell.

CHRISTINE: For what is the measure of a man? That he be a lawyer, musician, athlete merchant… That he be loved by his family friends and associates, his employees. Bell was all of these. Then surely he was a giant in our midst. WOW.

JOHN: I have to say I am increasingly impressed by how much raw prose surrounds the history of the cardboard box. A lot of writing.

RACHEL: And a lot of FAMILY.  Here’s John Loske. He’s another sales guy. And he’s family.

JOHN LOSKE: You guys are just walking by, you have nothing to add to the conversation?!

WOMAN: I already told them you’re my cousin!

RACHEL:  Everyone in the factory is related to each other. We spent a couple hours with Richard Daspin, he’s the chairman of the board and has worked there 58 years, and Matt Rosten that guy who had the box emergency earlier, he’s been there 16 years. They’ve known each other a long time. They had breakfast together.  They had dinner together the night before. They eat a lot of meals together.

JOHN: This is, I have to confess, adorable.

RACHEL: but as salesmen, as boxmakers, these guys are not adorable, they’re RUTHLESS.  Here’s Richard Daspin.  

RICHARD: Either change or die.

RACHEL: And Matt Rosten.

MATT: This is a true penny business if you let your pennies get out of control you can go out of business very rapidly.

RICHARD: I mean we really monitor our work daily.

MATT: This is a high turnaround business. When you go downstairs, everything that you see that is made today is going to be gone tomorrow.

RACHEL: There’s nothing on the shelf.

RACHEL: These guys are working in a low-cost, high volume business.  And that is what’s special about Bell Container. This is my argument about this place being the artisanal side of box making. These guys are an INDEPENDENT box manufacturer. This is all they do. They don’t cut down trees, they don’t make paper.  That’s a different type of company, it’s called an integrated company.

JOHN: So they own like a stake in a mill or something,

RACHEL: Yes and when you own a stake in a mill your main bag is — or your main box — is making paper. Like that’s what you’re trying to do, you’re just trying to move your paper out into the world so when these companies make boxes it’s normally as a loss leader.

JOHN: Oh so they’re making boxes in order to have a market for their paper.

RACHEL: Correct. That’s an integrated company — about 90 percent of paper manufacturers are integrated in some way.  But that is not what Bell is.

JOHN: Gotcha.

RACHEL: So, Bell these guys are like the artisanal pickle-makers mustache-twirling craftsmen of boxes.

JOHN: Right. The COOPERS of boxes.

RACHEL: Right. These guys have been making boxes continuously, since like 1915, Those are Robert Gair times. Guessing Robert Gair didn’t have a Porsche parked outside.

JOHN: I bet he had his version of a Porsche. A very shiny carriage with a very shiny horse, I betcha.

RACHEL: I think these guys would have gotten along really well with Robert Gair because they’re all, all about growing their business.

MATT: We’re out there every day trying to prospect. We want new business. We always want new business. We’re never full. This is a machine that has to be fed downstairs. We want to always be running.

RACHEL: And that kind of hustling — as John Loske describes it — can get messy.

JOHN: When I’m food shopping, I lose my wife. Let’s put it that way, she’s there shopping for things and I’m either in the dumpster or I’m in like, I’m in the back part of the supermarket going through different boxes and trying to find leads and stuff like that.

ELIZABETH: Yeah, does it work?

LOSKE: It definitely does work. And we have a saying that you’re not a real box salesman until you’ve been in a dumpster in a supermarket so …

JOHN: I am impressed by how dedicated this guy is to the least glamorous task of huntin’ down leads in a dumpster. There’s something so old-fashioned and Willy Loman-y about this whole endeavor.

RACHEL: John one more thing you know how you’re worried about your boxes spontaneously combusting.

JOHN: All the time.

RACHEL: That is a real concern.

JOHN: I knew it. Excuse me I have to go. I have to go get those boxes out of there. What do you mean, they’re going to just burn?

RACHEL: Well they can burn there’s a special type of box that’s actually meant to be burned.

JOHN: Oh really? What’s your burning box.

MATT: We make a cadaver box that people, when they get cremated you know in a cardboard box. Well you don’t want to put them in fancy coffin. It makes sense when you think about it. If you’re going to cremate a body, you should probably do it in a box.

CHRISTINE: What are the specifications for making a box like that, that has to burn?

MATT: Well nothing burns better than paper. Biggest fear we have here is a fire.  Every corrugated box company. When fire gets into a material like this, because it’s so dense and multilayered, you can think it’s out and it’ll turn right back on.

RACHEL: OK John so would you rather be cremated in a cadaver box or would you rather we shove your lifeless corpse into a barrel?

JOHN: Uh it does seem that a cadaver box would be more efficient although a barrel if shoved over the right waterfall could be very dramatic.

RACHEL: Yeah, this feels like a good place to wrap up this episode. With our funeral arrangements.  But John, there’s one last thing we didn’t get into, which I KNOW you want to know more about.

JOHN: Yes. WHY does corrugation make boxes so strong? It’s just a paper sandwich.

RACHEL: Okay, so for that let’s go to the research desk, Wikipedia. Here, this is the entry on corrugated fiberboard.

JOHN: Wikipedia, eh, so that’s what this has come to fine. Corrugated fiberboard has a higher stiffness resistance to bending than flat fiberboard of equal mass alright this can be explained by the Theorema Egregium. The pleated board is roughly isometric to a flat plane which is a Gaussian curvature of zero. Since the material is curved in one direction perpendicular to the pleats it must remain flat in the direction parallel to the pleats. Well that’s very illuminating although I didn’t understand it at all. I do like the sound of Theorema Egregium, but I don’t know what that means either. Is there anyone that can explain this to me?

RACHEL: Oh this guy can.

SAMUEL HANSEN: My name is Samuel Hansen. I am the host and producer of the mathematics podcast Relatively Prime.

RACHEL: Of course, that’s not all he does…

SAMUEL: I’m working currently as a barista since podcasting pays so well, at least when you’re doing it about mathematics.

RACHEL: We called Samuel in to help us understand this theorem thing. And he said, in that passage that you were reading, the most important concept to understand is “Gaussian curvature.”

SAMUEL: You’re in New York correct?

RACHEL: Yes, Brooklyn.

SAMUEL: Yeah, so you can probably go out a block or two to get a slice of pizza.

RACHEL:: Yeah, I know exactly where I’m going. Do you want me to go get a piece of pizza right now?

SAMUEL: So, when you get that piece of pizza and you hold it by the crust and you’re going to eat it and you’re just holding it flat.

RACHEL: OK, so I’ve got my hand on the crust. I’ve got it in my paw and I’m gripping it like the crust is a handle.

SAMUEL: Yup, so what happens.

RACHEL: It … I lose my pizza. Like I’m still holding the crust but everything else slides off the crust and then there’s cheese on the floor and I’m holding a soggy piece of empty pizza.

SAMUEL: Yeah, because the tip of it just flops forward. What do you do to eat that piece of pizza one-handed without that happening?

RACHEL: Oh, you put a bend in it.

SAMUEL: Yeah that’s because of this theorem.


SAMUEL: So the reason that the bottom part of the pizza stays flat when you fold that piece of pizza is because it has an isometry.

RACHEL: “An Isometry” is not a pizza topping. In this case, it means that you can transform something that’s flat — LIKE PIZZA — by bending it, but NOT by crumpling it.  BUT that is only important in this theorem as it helps us understand Gaussian curvature.  So the important thing here is if you’ve bent a flat surface — like your piece of pizza — you have transformed it — but you have NOT CHANGED its “Gaussian curvature.”

SAMUEL: So when you put a bend in something and you’re creating this extreme negative curvature, that means there has to be a segment that stays completely flat. In this case it will stay completely flat around the bottom where you put that bend in it therefore the tip cannot fall over and you cannot lose your slice of pizza and that is provable because of this theorem.

RACHEL: MATH SAYS! When you put the bend in the piece of pizza, that other bend is forbidden! The forward flopping bend, that would send you toppings and cheese to the floor.  That just can’t happen, because you’ve created this other bend that goes up and down the length of slice.  BUT I still wasn’t clear on what this theorem had to do with cardboard.  So Samuel had me take a piece of paper and fold it lengthwise.

RACHEL: So I have a rectangular piece of paper so I just folded it lengthwise so now it’s an even skinnier piece of paper.

SAMUEL: And now kind of like unfold it a little bit so it looks kind of like a triangle.

RACHEL: And VOILA! It sticks straight out! No more flopping over!  

SAMUEL: If you folded it a few more times in that way so you kind of accordion it. OK, so now you have something that is referred to as corrugated and if you put that in between two things that raise it above the table that you’re sitting at.

RACHEL: So I’m putting it on top of the surface that is the table in this studio and I’m going to test this I’m going to put a beer on it because I’m drinking a beer.

SAMUEL: Anything that will get someone through learning a little bit of really awesome mathematics, I don’t care what it takes I just want more people to love math.

RACHEL: Ok, I’m going to do it I’m going to put this beer on it you ready?


RACHEL: OK. It’s amazing. It’s amazing.

SAMUEL: It held it up right?

RACHEL: It’s just sitting there.

SAMUEL: Would that have happened if it was just a piece of paper.

RACHEL: No then the beer would just be sitting on the table.

SAMUEL: It is amazing that four simple folds create so much strength from a floppy piece of paper.

RACHEL: Well I have to admit it wasn’t holding up a full beer.

RACHEL: So that’s what makes cardboard strong, the fact that we’ve leveraged the power of the Gaussian curvature.  Those lengthwise folds in my corrugated piece of paper shut down that paper’s natural weakness. You slap a negative curvature on paper or pizza and you add this anti-sagging strength that keeps your toppings on your pizza and makes an excellent coaster for a beer. And makes cardboard boxes stronger.

JOHN: Alright I understand that and I have to say that’s pretty cool.  I still don’t know what theorema egregium is.

RACHEL: Theorema Egregium.  It means — you ready — “remarkable theorem!”

JOHN: That’s what it is? Cardboard is strong because of the remarkable theorem.

RACHEL: Yeah cardboard is remarkable. I proved my case. I’m right, you’re wrong.

JOHN: I have to say that’s pretty awesome. I was willing to accept that cardboard was a necessary workhorse, a humble product quietly making things go around the world without causing too much ecological devastation but it wasn’t until I heard the remarkable theorem that I have to agree it’s pretty awesome.

RACHEL: So you admit you find it fascinating

JOHN: I do find it fascinating but I want it out of my garage

RACHEL: Well dude I could just come up there and haul it out

JOHN: No I’m gonna hire some local kids to that. I’m going to do it Robert Gair style, child labor.

JOHN: Our theme is by Nicholas Britell and our ad music is by Build Buildings.

RACHEL: Additional music came from Danca, Nathan Michel, and Marmoset.  

JOHN: We were edited this week by Annie-Rose Strasser, and produced by Christine Driscoll and Elizabeth Kulas.

RACHEL: Thanks to Jacob Cruz, Cheyna Roth, Anna Stitt and NPR West and WERU in Blue Hill, Maine.

JOHN: That’s where Joel Mann spins the platters and lays down some bass. Castine every Tuesday night. Andrew Dunn mixed the episode.

RACHEL: You can tweet us @surprisingshow, email us at surprisinglyawesome@gimletprod.staging.wpengine.com. And our Tumblr is TrueSharkAttackStories.tumblr.com.

JOHN: Surprisingly Awesome is a production of Gimlet Media.

JOHN: You know what writing a book about cardboard boxes and packing a cardboard box well have in common?


JOHN: Padding.

JOHN: Clearly H. Allen Smith being paid was by the word. This is the most excited I’ve ever been about packaging in my life is reading this prose — it’s never been more purple. You know he was selling basically bags and packaging to department stores. Or as H. Allen Smith phrases it, today my lady’s hat comes in a neat box, not so in 1864. The mountainous leghorns with velvet streamers and moss rose filets, went home in paper bags.

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