Why Were CD Boxes So Big in the Early 1990s?

Image credit: Daniel R. Tobias/Wikimedia Commons

I was working at Tower Records back in the late 1980s, when the compact disc started replacing the vinyl LP. Beyond the arguments over the analog vs. digital sound (which continue to this day) and the higher price of CDs, there was the added issue of how to display them in the store.

From roughly 1988-1993, a CD came in what was called a longbox — 6 x 12”, cardboard and hollow. The longbox was a throwaway vessel that carried the smaller passenger of the jewel box-encased CD. The longbox was a transitional design, fashioned so that two of them could stand up, side by side, in the same bins that once held vinyl records (12 x 12”). The trouble was, longboxes rarely behaved in those bins. As a stock clerk, I was constantly straightening them out, smoothing them into rank and file. Sometimes, when customers flipped through them, they’d tumble out of the racks, like shrink-wrapped dominoes. And when there was too much stock, and you tried to jam the longboxes in a bin, their corners would get scrunched up and bent.

For big-selling contemporary artists at the time – Sting, Prince, Dire Straits – the longbox could admittedly provide an eye-catching advertisement for the CD inside. But for most older catalog-based releases, the generic longboxes were bland, with solid colors that tended to eclipse the CD design itself.

Longboxes were also intended to prevent theft. On their own, CDs in jewel cases were easy to slip into a jacket pocket. As a deterrent, the longboxes worked, mostly. But at Tower, determined thieves would pop the CDs out of the packages anyway and leave the empty longboxes behind.

On a list of least-loved package elements in the history of retail, longboxes are right up there with tamper-proof foil seals on medicine bottles and those thirty-two ball-tipped pins that hold folded dress shirts together. Graphic artists complained about the awkward way longboxes framed their sleeve designs. Record buyers tossed them in the trash. In 1992, when David Byrne released his latest CD, he put a sticker on the longbox that read: “This is garbage. This box, that is. The American record business insists on it though. If you agree that it's wasteful, let your store management know how you feel.”

And the longbox was wasteful. By 1990, it was estimated that longboxes were responsible for a whopping 18.5 million pounds of trash per year. The public outcry against the waste and the extra cost (they added as much as $1 to the price of each CD) finally spelled the end for the longbox in 1993. Some stores switched to “keepers” – clear plastic holders the size of a long box that were unlocked at the register. This was yet another transitional solution until stores were refitted with new bins, and jewel boxes could be electronically tagged (remember those little plastic stick-on rectangles on the back of CDs?) to prevent theft.

Today, when you occasionally run across longboxes at a Goodwill or a yard sale, they look as funny and outdated as 8-track tapes. But apparently, they have their nostalgic defenders. I had a chuckle when I found the site for The Longbox Society of America, "an organization dedicated to the documentation and preservation of the Longbox (aka those long boxes that CDs used to come in)."

And glancing at the listings on eBay, CDs in sealed longboxes are being sold as collectibles, with starting bid prices ranging from $20-100.

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July 10, 2012 - 7:33am
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