Monday, September 27, 2010

Who Invented The Long Box?

Although of diminishing importance due to publishers' increasing focus on digital distribution and bound collections that rest nicely on bookshelves, the comic book long box has been ubiquitous in collectors' homes for many years. Though they vary slightly in size and construction, comic collectors are quite familiar with the bleached cardboard boxes that hold so many of their books. But... who invented them? And when?

The earliest U.S. patent I can find relating to comic book storage dates only back to 1993. It's actually a drawer-style box that was invented by Randy Burnett of Los Angeles, CA but his is clearly not the first comic storage box. Indeed, Burnett cites in the documentation that long boxes "are well known and have been commercially available since 1974 or 1975." He does not, however, reference any particular inventors, patents or manufacturers of long boxes.

The earliest photos of them I can find only date back to 1982. Here's Steve Johnson at the San Diego Comic Con...Though the signage up front is highlighting comic bags, there are several long boxes clearly visible on the right.

Interestingly, though, here's long-time retailer Bud Plant at the same convention...Note that his comics down in front are NOT in long boxes but something a little more generic. So, however "well known and commercially available" long boxes may have been, they don't appear to be quite as common as they would later become.

(Both photos were taken by Alan Light.)

That's really all I've been able to find unfortunately. I know I didn't get my first long box until 1984 or 1985, but that obviously post-dates even the photos above.

So who invented the long box? It's a fairly straight-forward and obvious (at least in hindsight) answer to comic book storage, but when/where did it come about? Anyone have any insights?

16 comments:

Danny said...

This is the kind of hard-hitting journalism that Bendis would love! Keep at it, Sean!

Matt K said...

This is an interesting question. Even though I don't use them, I've known these things since I began collecting comics nearly 20 years ago. They've become an almost invisible part of comics' "infrastructure," I guess one might say.

But yes, they must have come from somewhere.

HMM2 said...

In the mid1970s, when I worked at Clint's Books in Kansas City, we used Singer Sewing Machine boxes (with the tops trimmed off) as makeshift long boxes. There was a company that advertised in either the fan press or in the Overstreet Guide that offered acid-neutralized archival boxes and paper-treatment sheets.

Trevor said...

When I was 10 or so -- around 1981 or 1982, I remember ordering a 'comic collecting kit' out of the Sears catalog that included some comics, a storage box that looked like a long box, but was probably closer to a short box, and I *think* some dividers or bags -- no boards. The first dedicated shops I went to around 1983 or 1984 definitely had long boxes for all their back issues.

Mark said...

I bought my first comics boxes from Steve Johnson in the early `70s, a few years before I met him in person. These were short boxes, but they were better than the old filing cabinets I used to buy to store my comics in. Steve went on to improve on the boxes. He also was the first to conceive of and manufacture bags, boards, and dividers. In the late `80s the branched out into comics store fixtures during a period when it was still difficult to get comics retailers to put on a professional appearance.

Brent said...

Steve had an ingenious system for storing his entire sizeable comic book collection in a nominal 10'x10' 70s-style San Jose tract house (w/closet minus the doors) using long boxes. He also had space for a sleeping space elevated over his office. I would not be at all surprised if Steve designed the long boxes, also.

Mark said...

I was using long boxes by the time I was a Junior at UCSC (1976-77), probably supplied by Steve. I think by that time minor distributors like Charles Abar were ripping of and competing with Steve's products.

Jim Thompson said...

As a comic fan since about '73, I also worked at and visited as a collector several comic cons in MI and OH in the latter 1970s. We had manufactured boxes (in flat form in many cases, you folded them together) of the same type that were used for comics. These were everywhere by, as I recall, no later than '77, if not earlier than that. They were commonplace long before (years prior to) that patent. Coated white paperboard, the same thing. So the patent doesn't actually signify the time of their debut, and I wonder if there is more than one box patent for moderately similar products. Somewhere around maybe 1980(?) there were positive changes in the material used for the plastic bags, too. Some of the earlier versions actually darkened over time. If anyone has old copies of the Comics Buyers' Guide or maybe even Comic Reader issues, you'll find ads definitely predating the 1980s.

Jim T. said...

....(oops) ads that offer the boxes for sale at the time, I meant to assert.

James said...

Jim Kovacs of The Bookie Joint, in Canton Ohio, was marketing single-bottomed long comic boxes by 1976 at the latest--probably a year or two earlier.
The first boxes that I saw which used the locking, double-bottomed design that has since become predominant, however, were marketed by John Ruffner of Crack Comics in the Chicago area, in 1977. He may not have originated the design, but I don't know of anyone else ho used it that early.

Lawrence H. Curtis said...

I was a friend of Kovacs in the early 70's. He was constantly working to improve storage and transport for comic shows. There was a card board box manufacturer in Canton at the time and Kovacs worked out the dimensions and features with them for his own inventory and because of pricing in larger quantities, he had them made also for resale. He was even concerned about the type of cardboard and the acid content.

Lawrence H. Curtis said...

Note that the long box length is the same as the width of the common table provided by the hotels where comic sales took place. The rigidity of the box was sufficient to carry the box without it bending and able to be stacked on a dolly to get through door ways. There is a lot of thought by Kovacs, who also invented the vertical display frame for the tables, the cardboard insert for the plastic bags, the sealed bag made with a soldering iron and lots of other useful sales inventions.

Tim G. said...

Here's another vote for Jim Kovacs as the father of the long box. I was a weekly customer at the Bookie Joint in Canton during the mid-70s and I remember quite clearly when he first started selling boxes. He also ran ads in the Comics Buyers Guide touting them (featuring a photo of a pretty girl holding one of the boxes). No one else was selling them - Kovacs was the first. Actualy, I still have one of the original boxes. You had to glue them together and The Bookie Joint logo and address was printed on the bottom.

Mike D said...

Yep, the Bookie Joint was the first
shop I ever saw the long boxes.
About '74-'75 or so. I was a
customer and sometimes worker for
Jim at shows. Brings back some
nice memories.
Anybody know what's become of
Jim? Last I heard is that after
he closed the shop he moved to
California.

Anonymous said...

I went to high school with Steve Johnson.

One day I said to him we should get some custom boxes made. He had a drivers' license so he took on the task of finding a maker, making samples, showing me the samples, and then we ordered the first run. The first boxes where about a foot long with flap tops.

This led to his Bag Man business as he started ordering bags too. He fell into a side business of making a profit of his collector friends to pay for his own supplies!

By June 73 (while we were still in high school together) he'd come up with the Long Box (or a least a prototype). My collecting interest had waned by then so I passed.

I remember him getting cardboard and using an exacto knife to dummy up some designs. So it is entirely possible he designed the long box.

He showed me the long box probably in June/Summer 73, or maybe Christmas 73.

...Steve evidently had had a very strict father. I went with him once to see his collection after school, he was terrified as he entered his house, he had a nervous laugh and started to stutter, he showed me some of his comic collection at the time...and he was very nervous and told me I had to leave by a certain time, and I asked him why, and he said he had to have his homework done by a certain time because of his father, or there would be hell to pay. Nothing other than A's was accepted by his father.

Now, this next bit is a very tough side bar, because I read online some years back that he had passed away of cancer pretty young... I'm just going to be honest here, so consider that Steve was 17/18 when when I really knew him.

Being two years younger than he, he took advantage of me with a few ethical lapses. One was pretty egregious.

I had found 4 comics I wanted to buy, when Steve was with me on a buying trip. I put them on hold, which was common practice at the time, as long as you came back within a week, they were yours.

Steve, having a drivers license before me, drove over mid week after high school, and bought the comics out from under me, claiming he represented me, since the owner of the store had seen Steve with me, he just sold them to Steve.

The problem with this is that there were no more copies of those comics. They were old, and unique. Steve showed up at school telling me what he did and offering me a "take it or leave it" offer for the 2 LEAST valuable of the 4 I'd had on hold, that he wasn't interested in.

It was a shitty move, and caused my friendship with him to do a slow fade. He evidently decided in some ethical lapse, greed, collectors' greed, or maybe eldest child move that he got to do that.

I never trusted him again. I stayed acquaintances with him after that, I just never considered him really in my circle of friends after that move.

I faded him out of my life by 74, so he had to have the long box by then.

After college, (79 to 81) I ran into a him maybe a few times.

I didn't know about his premature death until sometime in the last decade when his name popped into my head and I googled him, found that same picture of him somewhere on the web and mention of his premature death.

BTW, we never thought of patenting the first boxes, nor would we, we were kids, and patenting something wasn't a common topic.

Second to lastly, after Steve dropped out of college, his father, a business man, had built a small country style office building in Felton, CA (pretty sure) and one of the very few times I ran into Steve (post high school) he told me he had a bag and box business there called "The Bag Man." So it seemed like his father had come around to accepting that Steve wasn't going to take his straight A's and become an engineer or something.

When I heard about him passing of cancer, I couldn't help but think that that stressful childhood could have been an epigenetic influence.

...Well, there's probably more than you ever wanted to know about The Bag Man.

Sorry for any typos.

Anonymous said...

PS, it is possible there was more than one long box around for a while and the superior design won out or was cloned.

The length being the size of hotel display tables at the time would argue for the Ohio guy.

I do know that Steve was messing around with an exato knife and cannibalized cardboard and tinkering with ideas for improving storage and protection.

He wasn't into selling his collection at the time, he was into protecting it and storage.