25 Surprising Facts About Bubble Wrap
Outside of cats making their home in empty shipping boxes, no packaging tool has brought more joy to consumers than Bubble Wrap, which has been protecting fragile goods—and relieving stress—with its air-filled chambers since 1960. In honor of Bubble Wrap Appreciation Day (which takes place annually on January 29), we’re taking a look at 25 things you might not know about this shipping institution.
1. It was originally supposed to be wallpaper.
Wallpaper may have lost some of its social cachet, but in the 1950s, gluing patterned rolls to your living room was a decorating win. In 1957, an engineer named Al Fielding and a Swiss inventor named Marc Chavannes wanted to bring a wallpaper to market with a raised texture. As an experiment, they glued two shower curtains together, sealing them so tightly that air bubbles were created. But few consumers wanted to cocoon themselves in a padded room, and the wrap-as-wallpaper idea never took off.
2. It was used as greenhouse insulation.
Their wallpaper dreams dashed, Fielding and Chavannes decided to take their glued-curtain idea and transfer it to greenhouses, where the material could be used to insulate buildings and retain heat. This worked, but it was still hard to convince buyers to enclose their environment in plastic. For a time, it seemed like Bubble Wrap would remain a good idea without much of a purpose.
3. IBM changed everything.
By 1959, Fielding and Chavannes had incorporated Sealed Air, a business umbrella for marketing their Bubble Wrap product. Their marketing expert, Frederick W. Bowers, learned that IBM was preparing to ship their 1401 decimal computer to buyers. Realizing the item was both expensive and fragile, Bowers pitched the company on the idea of shipping them wrapped in Sealed Air’s trademark product. (Previously, shippers used newspaper, sawdust, or horse hair to protect delicate items.) Impressed, IBM soon began using Bubble Wrap to protect delicate electronics from damage during transit. By the mid-1960s, Bubble Wrap had become a shipping institution.
4. "Bubble wrap" is trademarked.
Like Xerox, Kleenex, Coke, and other brand names that became so ubiquitous that they began to slip into day-to-day vocabularies, Bubble Wrap is actually a trademarked product of Sealed Air. No competing air-cushioning company can use the term.
5. It comes in handy on film sets.
The next time you watch a movie or television show set in a high school, it's possible you’re looking at a bunch of extras toting Bubble Wrap around campus. Actors sometimes carry backpacks stuffed with the product so they're not forced to lug around heavy books during a long shooting day.
6. Someone once figured out if you could jump out of a six-story window and land safely on it.
Could Bubble Wrap cushion a fall? While we would never recommend you put it to the test, one theory says maybe. In 2011, WIRED contributor Rhett Allain crunched numbers and estimated one might need 39 layers of Bubble Wrap in order to survive a fall out of a sixth-story window.
7. An air force base once mistook its pops for gunshots.
In December 2015, security officials were called to the Kirtland Air Force base in Albuquerque, New Mexico after reports of gunshots were heard. High-powered weapons and Humvees were assembled before officials determined that the “threat” had been someone on base popping Bubble Wrap.
8. The boy scouts set a popping world record.
In 2015, Boy Scouts in Elbert, Colorado succeeded in setting a Guinness World Record for the most number of people popping Bubble Wrap simultaneously: 2681 Scouts participated.
9. An artist uses bubble wrap to create "pop art."
Artist Bradley Hart has a unique approach to modern art. Using a syringe, he injects paint into individual air cylinders of Bubble Wrap, creating pixelated-looking landscapes and portraits. Hart also displays the reverse side of these works, which feature running paint from the injections and serve as a counterpoint to the more disciplined image on the front.
10. Some bubble wrap doesn't pop.
Sacrificing fun for practicality, in 2015 Sealed Air began offering iBubble Wrap, a product that ships flat and uninflated so it takes up less space in warehouses. (Customers can inflate it when it’s ready to be used.) It's as effective as regular Bubble Wrap, with one caveat: once filled, it doesn't make any satisfying noise when popped.
11. It once kept a giant pumpkin from disaster.
What happens when you drop an 815-pound pumpkin from a 35-foot crane? Normally, a crime scene. But in October 2000, a pumpkin-dropping contest in Iowa decided to see if a Bubble Wrap landing pad could protect "Gourdzilla" from harm [PDF]. Landing on the product, the mammoth squash was completely intact.
12. Popping it may have health benefits.
Popping Bubble Wrap ranks among life’s greatest small pleasures. (Sealed Air even offers an "Anti-Stress"-labeled roll of the stuff.) Some have theorized it may have to do with our ancestral habit of crushing ticks or other insects that plagued us—although the truth may be a little less morbid. In 1992, psychology professor Kathleen Dillon conducted a study in which she found that subjects were more relaxed and less tired after a popping session. One possible reason: Humans are soothed by tactile sensations of touch, which is why some cultures favor smooth stones or "worry beads" to manipulate for comfort. That might explain why virtual popping on cell phones or screens doesn't have quite the same effect.
13. It was a Toy Hall of Fame finalist in 2016.
Popping Bubble Wrap has become such a beloved pastime that the National Toy Hall of Fame once considered it for inclusion. In 2016, the Strong Museum in Rochester, New York nominated Bubble Wrap along with Care Bears, Dungeons & Dragons, and other playthings for induction. Bubble Wrap didn't make the cut, but for a "toy" that is essentially nothing but air, it must have been an honor just to be considered.
14. You can opt for fancy versions.
Bored with conventional Bubble Wrap? Sealed Air also manufactures sheets with air cushions shaped like letters that spell out "happy holidays" and chambers shaped like hearts or smiley faces.
15. Sealed air once made golden wrap.
In honor of the 50th anniversary of Bubble Wrap's debut as a shipping staple, Sealed Air released a special commemorative golden Bubble Wrap in 2010.
16. One bride wore a bubble wrap wedding dress.
With an eye on a sustainable gown for her wedding, England native Rachael Robinson decided to opt for a Bubble Wrap-crafted dress in May 2010. The dress was made at the school Robinson taught at for a fashion show of recyclable materials. It featured a three-foot Bubble Wrap train. (She wore a more conventional dress at a second ceremony.)
17. Norway uses it to prevent hypothermia.
When transporting critically ill patients, Norwegian emergency medicine technicians sometimes use Bubble Wrap to prevent hypothermia in the frigid climate. In 2009, a study was conducted to determine Bubble Wrap's efficacy in heat retention in mannequins. It was found to be only 69 percent as effective as blankets, or about the equivalent of a sleeping bag.
18. It made the cover of Playboy in 1997.
Proving that Bubble Wrap has unlimited uses, actress Farrah Fawcett posed wearing only a run of the see-through material for a 1997 Playboy cover and interior photo spread. Because the Wrap left nothing to the imagination, Fawcett's cover was shipped only to subscribers.
19. The bubble wrap factory is like an oven.
To churn out the miles of Bubble Wrap produced yearly, Sealed Air’s factory in Elmwood Park, New Jersey can be a bit stifling. The machines use resin to create the sheets at temperatures of 560 degrees, making the air around it "sweat-inducing."
20. It's in the Museum Of Modern Art.
In 2004, the Museum of Modern Art accepted a donation from Sealed Air of a nearly 12-inch by 12-inch square of Bubble Wrap into their Architecture and Design collection. It went on display as part of their Humble Masterpieces collection, which also featured chopsticks and the Band-Aid.
21. Amazon may ship your bubble wrap in protective packaging.
A bizarre photo of a Bubble Wrap order covered in shipping paper made the viral rounds in 2015, with people puzzled why Amazon would need to protect protective packaging material. One possible answer: because the roll didn't take up the entire box, shippers reinforced the empty space with additional packing material so the cardboard wouldn't collapse and send stacked boxes above it tumbling.
22. It has inspired young inventors.
Back in 2007, Sealed Air sponsored a Bubble Wrap Competition for Young Inventors, encouraging grade school students to find alternative uses for their celebrated product. Among the ideas: using a layer of Wrap as a building material to absorb shock on floors; as a rest pad for carpal tunnel sufferers; and as a wallpaper designed to stimulate children with autism. The annual contest ran through 2010.
23. It inspired a book.
Published in the 1998, The Bubble Wrap Book took a novel look at alternative uses for Bubble Wrap. Some were clearly intended for satirical purposes—like stuffing your wallet with the stuff to impress dates—while others may find some practical use. Making a mat out of Bubble Wrap could, in theory, alert you to a burglar.
24. You can buy a Bubble Wrap calendar.
Bored with marking off days with a big red X? Sealed Air licenses day calendars that allow consumers to punctuate dates by popping a giant bubble instead.
25. You can still use it as insulation.
Sealed Air doesn't officially endorse its use as insulation, but Bubble Wrap can indeed do what its inventors aspired toward back in the 1950s. Using the packaging material around windows can help retain heat indoors and help keep homes cool during summer, with the trapped air in the bubbles having a thermal retention effect. This assumes you can keep from popping them.