Civilisation has been trading internationally across oceans for thousands of years before the shipping container industry came into being. Here is a succinct breakdown of the way in which they carried out their trading activity with such sparse resources to hand:
For as long as there has been civilisation, there has been trade. Mankind has been shipping consumer goods across waters and oceans for thousands of years, long before shipping containers. From the Egyptians to the Greeks, the Romans to the British and many more. Sailing the world in search of resources, both essential and exotic has been a mainstay of any civilisation and economy.
In spite of its necessity however, the process was far from easy. The loading and unloading of individual goods in barrels, sacks and wooden crates from land transport to ship and back again on arrival was slow and cumbersome. The process-in-question, referred to as break-bulk shipping was the only known way to transport goods via maritime channels up until the second half of the 20th Century (1956).
The loading and unloading of the ship was very labour intensive. A ship could easily spend more time in port than at sea while dockworkers manhandled cargo into and out of tight spaces below decks. There was also high risk of accident, loss and theft and in the case of perishable goods, the cargo being ruined.
There were some basic systems in place to make the process more efficient, such as the use of rope for bundling timber, sacks for carrying coffee beans, and pallets for stacking and transporting bags or sacks.
Industrial and technological advances, such as the spread of the railways in the 18th century, highlighted the inadequacies and inefficiencies of the cargo shipping system in its current state. In short, break-bulk shipping was becoming a real problem.
Before the shipping container industry emerged, boxes of various types and sizes had often been used in transporting cargo simply because they were the logical way to move things in bulk from one location to another. However, despite these developments, cargo handling was almost as labour-intensive after WW2 as it had been in the mid-1800s. The industry had not grown to accommodate the increase in world-wide consumer demand, and something fundamental needed to happen in order to alleviate this problem.