Not-So-Famous Firsts: Food Packaging Edition

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Have you ever wondered why Chinese carry-out is packaged in those wire-handled boxes? Or who came up with the idea of squeezing a dollop of ketchup into a foil packet? Read on for answers to these and other pressing questions...

White Gold Storage

The iconic little folded box with a handle wasn't originally designed with Moo Goo Gai Pan in mind. In the early 1900s, fresh oysters were so plentiful along the New England seashore and such a steady source of income for fishermen that they referred to the shelled slimies as "white gold." The average consumer, however, didn't want the mess or hassle involved with shucking oysters, so the savvy fisherman removed the shells from his catch prior to selling. Originally, customers brought their own containers, but the oyster business eventually boomed so much that Bloomer Brothers, a package manufacturer in Newark, New York, began mass-producing a wax-coated cardboard box that could be used as an oyster pail. The little buckets were soon used by vendors as a carry-all for everything from ice cream to live goldfish. Eventually, folded food containers became Bloomer's number one product. Shortly after World War II, Chinese food suddenly exploded in popularity with mainstream America, and the oyster pail became the carton of choice for Asian carry-out. Bloomer Brothers eventually became the Fold-Pak Corporation and is now the largest supplier of Chinese food containers in the United States.

Got Milk Carton?

Unless you lived on a farm in the pre-refrigeration days of the late 19th century and had access to udders, you purchased your milk from the friendly traveling milkman. Using a horse-drawn cart, he ladled out the moo juice from a large open pail into whatever jug or container the customers brought with them to market. This method was both inconvenient and unsanitary; milk tended to slosh and spill as the customer carried it home, and it was often contaminated with the road grit and horse hair that accumulated in the milkman's pail along the route.

The Warren Glass Works Company of Allegheny County, Maryland, patented the first purpose-made glass milk bottle in March 1880. The Warren bottle had a metal bale around the neck that held a protective cap in place. Three years later, Hervey Thatcher, a New York pharmacist, patented a covered milk pail with two sleeve funnels for the sanitary dispensing of milk from the horse cart to the consumer without the milkman having to lift a ladle.

Glass bottles were a definite step forward, but they also had many drawbacks – they were heavy, breakable, and somewhat expensive to produce. G.W. Maxwell patented the first paper milk carton in 1906; the containers were folded and glued by hand, then coated with paraffin wax. Paper cartons weren't an immediate hit. Because they were assembled when shipped from Maxwell's plant, they took up a lot of valuable storage space at the dairy. Ohio toymaker John Van Wormer pondered the problem and, in 1915, patented a "paper bottle" he called Pure-Pak. It was shipped flat and then later assembled and glued at the dairy prior to being filled.

Cookies and Doughnuts and Cakes, Oh My

Quality baked goods used to be sold in white paperboard boxes tied with string, and only someone with X-ray vision knew what the treats within actually looked like. Then in 1959 Martha Entenmann, wife of the son of the Entenmann's bakery founder, had a brainstorm – people were more apt to buy something if they could actually see it. Working with her sons (who'd joined their mom in the family business after serving in the Korean War), she developed the first cake box with a plastic "window." The new box allowed the company to display its product on standard supermarket shelves, rather than relying on the limited "under glass" space available in independent bakeries. Instead of taking a number and waiting for a busy salesperson, consumers could browse among all the various "see-through" boxes of Entenmann's chocolate chip cookies, powdered doughnuts, and crumb cakes (a favorite of Frank Sinatra) at their leisure before making a choice. Or two.

Portable Ketchup


Ketchup has been America's favorite condiment since the early 1800s, so it stands to reason that most of us think of ketchup packets as having been around "forever." However, the individual foil "sachet" (the industry term for a condiment packet) is much younger than you'd think – it was patented in May 1955 and wasn't widely used until 1968, when Heinz started packaging its ketchup thusly and selling it in bulk to the food service industry. Prior to that time, military personnel were given dehydrated ketchup powder in their field rations, ballpark vendors adorned hot dogs from condiment tubs on their trays before passing them down to the customer, and drive-in restaurants brought full-size bottles to the cars requesting ketchup.

Don't Expect a Laugh When You Crack a Yolk

The egg may be considered by some to be nature's perfect food, but unfortunately nature hadn't considered the logistics involved in shipping eggs in bulk when she devised that fragile shell to contain her precious nutrients. When transporting fresh eggs to market, farmers attempted to cushion their cargo with towels and newspapers, but the bumpy and pitted dirt roads of the 1800s made it nearly impossible for an egg shipment to arrive completely intact.

Joseph Coyle made his living as the founder and editor of the local newspaper in Smithers, British Columbia, but he also had a passion for inventing things. One morning in 1911, he was dining at the Aldermere Hotel when he overheard a heated argument between the hotel owner and the farmer who'd just delivered a shipment of mostly broken eggs. Coyle's mental gears began turning, and he returned to his office with one purpose in mind – to invent a better way to transport eggs. Later that year he patented the "Coyle Egg-Safety Carton," a carrier made of stiffened paper that had a separate "dimple" for each egg. Coyle made his cartons by hand for several years, but demand grew and sales were so strong that by 1919 he was able to build a mechanized factory to produce his egg cartons.

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May 25, 2011 - 6:15pm
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