A Brief History of the Shipping Container

Shipping containers don’t have a very complex past—that’s because as soon as the world realized how much more efficient it was to pack and stack cargo than to ship it loosely, the profit increases were too incredible to deny. 

The shipping container revolutionized the world trade industry by amplifying efficiency of shipping. Prior to the popularization of containerization, goods traveled the seas loosely on cargo ships. When the world shipping industry realized that this was far from the best way to transport goods, contributing to globalization in a major way.

Cargo Ship

Photo Courtesy of Dendroica Cerulea 

North Carolina trucking entrepreneur Malcolm McLean thought up the shipping container, popularizing it in a way never done before with similar structures. The first overseas trip using containers in 1956, according to The Economist, cost McLean only $0.16 per ton to load, as opposed to the whopping $5.83 per ton to load that people were paying when shipping cargo loosely. Combined with speedier loading and unloading of products, retail prices saw massive decreases. Everyone won.

Widespread use of the modern shipping container took a few years to take off, but it sure did. Between 1966 and 1983 the share of countries with container ports rose from 1 percent to almost 90 percent. Ports got larger, both in the US and abroad, allowing more trade with more places. This international expansion aptly corresponded with a major period of economic growth in China. Looking at the United States’ trade relationship with China today, the increased efficiency provided by the shipping container was monumentally beneficial to both parties.

Cargo Ship 2

Photo Courtesy of International Labour Organization

Before McLean popularized the shipping container that’s now a staple in modern industry, similar structures were used to transport goods by both land and sea.

The life of the shipping container:

1795: Horse-drawn wagons in the form of containers carry coal through mining regions of England

1830s: English railroads begin carrying semi-portable containers

1929: Seatran Lines carries railroad boxcars on ships between new York and Cuba

1940s: US Army uses containers to load and unload ships during World War II

1956: Malcolm McLean’s first shipping container takes its inaugural voyage

2006: California architect Peter DeMaria creates the first shipping container home in Redondo Beach


To rent or buy a new or used shipping container today, call Container Alliance at 800-386-2345 or email us at info@containeralliance.com. Get a quote now.

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