Wednesday's Book: The Total Package by Thomas Hine (Little, Brown, pounds 9.99)

Unwrapping the mystique of the packet, the American design critic Thomas Hine notes that the "persuasive container" is an inherent element of the natural world: "The phenomena that are most relevant to packaging - fruit, nuts, pods, flowers - are reproductive, rather than merely protective like the oyster shell." The perplexing appeal of Coca-Cola may be explained by the fact that the "female shape" of the original cinch-waisted bottle prompts prenatal memories. As Hine says, "Mom is the package we came in."

Specialised containers for wine and beer were used in Iran more than 5,000 years ago. The uniform shape and marks on Roman perfume bottles suggests that branding and mass production have been with us for at least two millennia. But the first modern packages came with 17th-century patent medicines, an unexpected aspect of Puritanism. The trustworthy image of the medicine-selling Quaker was later appropriated for the first packaged food to be sold nationally in America.

The packaging industry gained momentum when a cannery using tin plate opened in Bermondsey in 1812. Six years later, the Royal Navy was annually using around 24,000 large tins of "embalmed provisions", opened using a hammer and chisel.

The paper bag was invented in 1852, and was rapidly adopted because of the cloth-sack shortage during the American Civil War. The glass bottle was a late-comer to automation, being blown entirely by hand until the l890s.

Utilising these innovations, the great names of modern mass merchandising appear towards the end of the 19th century. After a failure with bottled horseradish, HJ Heinz began to pack ketchup in 1876. Campbell's condensed soup, with a red and white label based on the colours of Cornell University football team, appeared in 1899. A cereal, "mostly for horses and a few stray Scots", became a mainstay of American cuisine following the appearance of Quaker Oats in 1886.

The appearance of such famous brands has scarcely changed over the past century, but others have required extensive readjustment. Few have been more radical than the sex-change experienced by Marlboro. First marketed as a lady's cigarette ("Mild as May"), it adopted a more hunky image in the Fifties. Not only did the flip-top pack suggest that users led a more rugged life, but its very awkwardnessreminded smokers of the brand.

Hine's potted history misses one or two tricks. Though he stresses how characterless products like water and vodka tend to have distinctively fancy bottles in compensation, he does not note that the design of the Perrier bottle was based on the Indian clubs whirled by the Rothschild founder of the brand. Nor, in his analysis of Procter & Gamble brands, does he touch on the rumour that sped through America: namely that the conglomerate's moon and stars logo was the sign of the devil. But this is a well-researched account, entertainingly recounted, of an essential aspect of Americana. It deserves a place alongside Bill Bryson's Made in America.

Christopher Hirst