Packaging has pragmatic origins, arising from the need for processed products to be transported and stored with no damage. For centuries, packaging was as simple as cloth bags, wood boxes, or crates. Most food was sold in bulk from which the grocer would scoop out the quantity needed and put it in another bag.

It was not until the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th century that packaging became an important tool for marketing. At that time, so many new products were being manufactured that the consumer had a variety of choices. Often the package determined whether one product would be purchased over another.

While package design has played a vital role in the marketing of a product since the Industrial Revolution, the packaging industry has also had a role in the development of new products. For example, the microwave oven has necessitated the design of new packaging that allows foods to be microwaved without compromising quality.

Other household products that have changed the packaging industry include the refrigerator and the freezer. These appliances, in conjunction with new materials such as plastic, have broadened the industry. New packaging systems have emerged, such as aseptic packaging, which enables milk, fruit juices, and other liquids to stay fresh without refrigeration for many months.

Today it is possible to create an almost infinite number of new packaging forms possessing practically every characteristic desired by packaging people. Plastics with new cost-function relationships are being created almost faster than packaging people can learn about them. New forms of metals, such as lightweight aluminum, are also being developed and used in packaging applications.

Many federal agencies protect consumers by imposing and enforcing regulations on packaging. For example, the Department of Agriculture regulates the packaging and labeling of meat and poultry. In 2015 the House of Representatives voted to repeal country-of-origin labeling for beef, pork and chicken. The Department of Health and Human Services, which includes the Food and Drug Administration, enforces regulations concerning packaging and labeling of food, cosmetics, and pharmaceutical products. U.S. Customs & Border Protection regulates packaging requirements for imports, and the Surface Transportation Board (formerly the Interstate Commerce Commission) regulates packaging used for transporting dangerous articles and hazardous materials. The Federal Trade Commission enforces regulations concerning deceptive labeling and packaging.

In 1982, the Food and Drug Administration issued new guidelines on the packaging of capsules and other products that are vulnerable to tampering. The new rules, drawn up in response to a wave of tampering cases, applied to many drugs or preparations that could be ingested, inhaled, injected, or otherwise used. The aim was to prevent deaths or injuries such as those that occurred in 1982 following ingestion of cyanide-laced Tylenol capsules. In 1989 there were two amendments to these guidelines. For gelatin capsules that are easier to tamper with, there must be at least two tamper proof packaging features. Also, capsules that are sealed with a tamper-proof coating must have at least one tamper-proof packaging feature. In general, the rules required the addition of tamper-proof seals. The packaging industry responded to these new guidelines and rules by applying more tamper-free packaging, such as bubble wrap and protective rings to a wide variety of products.

A more recent concern affecting the industry involves the environment. Many packaging firms are developing biodegradable and recyclable products to reduce waste. The importance of packaging is underscored by the buying patterns of environmentally conscious consumers who choose environmentally correct packages over wasteful ones, regardless of the products themselves.

Packaging activity is generally spread throughout the United States, but there are, of course, concentrations of packaging plants for specific products. Canned and frozen foods are packaged to a large extent in the fruit and vegetable growing areas of the Pacific Coast, Midwest, Florida, and the Middle Atlantic states. Specialty foods are packaged in or near large metropolitan areas, particularly New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. These and other big cities are also centers for toiletry, pharmaceutical, and hardware packaging. Packaging is part of the manufacturing process in just about every one of the manufacturing facilities in the United States.