Today, when you go shopping, most of the food is kept in plastic or paper containers (or tin cans).

In the everyday life, what types of containers were used to sell, transport and keep food before plastic and before the industrial era?

  • Pottery (amphora), barrels, and wineskins mostly - which is why archaeologists know so much about pottery, as it is the only one of the three relatively imperishable. Commented Dec 15, 2013 at 20:48
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    @PieterGeerkens - The problem with barrels in ancient tombs is that they are always the first thing wandering adventurers want to break. ;-)
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Dec 15, 2013 at 20:54
  • No metal or glass or cardboard or leather or fabric ?
    – Xoff
    Commented Dec 15, 2013 at 20:54
  • @T.E.D.: I am not averse to cracking open a barrel or two myself from time to time. Commented Dec 15, 2013 at 21:14
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    @Xoff glass is a relatively recent invention, and originally would have been too expensive (it's rather labour intensive to make by hand).
    – jwenting
    Commented Dec 17, 2013 at 6:38

3 Answers 3


Pottery (amphora), barrels, and wineskins mostly - which is why archaeologists know so much about pottery, as it is the only one of the three relatively imperishable.

Paper was relatively expensive by todays standards until the early 20th century (and glass more so as only hand-blown glass was known) thus would have been used only to store relatively pricey items such as spices and medicines.

Metal tins (not tin cans!) were useful because a very tight seal could be obtained rom metal-on-metal contact, but this really only becomes common in Europe after the development of improved sheet-rolling technology in the early 19th century. (Think tobacco containers, and their almost air-tight seal.)

Tin cans followed a few decades later, in time for the Arctic and Antarctic expeditions of the late 19th century.

As an example of the sometimes dramatic price changes that have ensued from cheap electric power, consider the cutlery at Louis Napoleon's coronation. The most favoured guests were provide with the even-more-expensive-than-platinum cutlery, manufactured from aluminum. Only the hoi-polloi were provided with silver cutlery!

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    you forgot leather bladders (and yes, washed out animal bladders) for storing liquids (mostly short term), and large plant leaves (think banana leaves) for storing solids, both of which are still used to this day.
    – jwenting
    Commented Dec 17, 2013 at 6:40
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    @jwenting: Such is usually referred to as a wineskin, or occasionally a bota, and as you point out is a washed-out animal bladder reinforced on the outside by a sewn leather bag.: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bota_bag Commented Dec 17, 2013 at 6:54
  • yes, that's the word I was looking for. Often used as well by troops on the move to store water rations for the day's march (easier than sipping from a wooden barrel strapped on your back).
    – jwenting
    Commented Dec 17, 2013 at 6:56
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    I did not know about aluminum. Thank you for the answer !
    – Xoff
    Commented Dec 17, 2013 at 14:23
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    The top cap of the Washington Monument is Aluminum because it was more precious than gold at the time.
    – Oldcat
    Commented Feb 21, 2014 at 19:45

Before plastic, most of liquids were sold in paper containers or glass bottles (paper packs for liquids appeared in 20th century though). Solid food was sold in paper envelopes or boxes, metal boxes, foil or in natural envelopes (guts, leafs).

Sometimes people were required to come with their own volumes to buy a liquid or a semi-liquid, with large quantities stored in wood/metal barrels.

  • In fact I was wondering if glass, paper and metal was something common enough during middle age to be used as food containers, or if people had to use more mundane materials like potteries…
    – Xoff
    Commented Dec 15, 2013 at 21:01
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    @Xoff most liquids those times were distributed into the buyer's containers whatever he comes with (usually, pottery I think).
    – Anixx
    Commented Dec 15, 2013 at 21:03
  • The 17th century antiquary John Aubrey regretted that old manuscripts were sometimes used to line pie-dishes (as we use greaseproof paper in cake tins). That shows how scarce paper was. Commented Nov 5, 2022 at 11:23

Modern food packaging came much later than the "industrial era". The food like fruits and vegetables was sold without any packaging. Meat, butter, cheese, sausage etc. was wrapped in paper by the seller at the time you bought it, liquids were sold in glass bottles. This was the usual practice, for example, in Soviet Union until it collapsed. Tin cans and conservation were invented in XIX century. Large quantities of liquids were preserved in wood barrels.

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