Saturday, June 2, 2018

The Chinese Takeout Box, a Chicago Invention by Frederick Weeks Wilcox in 1894.

The Chinese-takeout container, with its Japanese-influenced origami folds, is uniquely a Chicago invention. On Nov. 13, 1894, in Chicago, the inventor Frederick Weeks Wilcox patented a version of what he called a “paper pail,” which was a single piece of paper, creased into segments and folded into a (more or less) leakproof container secured with a dainty wire handle on top. The supportive folds on the outside, fastened with that same wire, created a flat interior surface over which food could slide smoothly onto a plate.

How to Eat Chinese Takeout.
That moment you realize your Chinese takeout box is a Transformer.

Wilcox’s paper box seems to have been an advance in existing “oyster pail” technology. (The oyster pail, as described by Ernest Ingersoll in his 1880 book, “The Oyster Industry,” was “a wooden receptacle with a locked cover used in transporting raw oysters.”) At any rate, the paper oyster pail and the incipient Chinese-food industry — which was beginning its meteoric rise in the early 20th century — seemed made for each other. “It’s nearly leakproof, and it’s disposable, and they’re really inexpensive,” says Michael Prince, who redesigned the Box O’ Joe Coffee carton for Dunkin’ Donuts. “Origami can make a really cool transport device.”

In the 1970s, a graphic designer (whose name, sadly, has been lost to history) working at the company now known as Fold-Pak, put a pagoda on the side of the box and a stylized “Thank you” on top. Both were printed in red, a color symbolic of good fortune in China, where oyster pails are little known.
And thus was forged the great paradox: “The structure has come to represent the idea of Eastern cuisine in Western society even though this packaging is not used for food containment in Chinese culture,” says Scott Chapps, designer of packaging for Help Remedies. Or, as David Federico, marketing manager for Fold-Pak, put it, “We don’t sell them in China.”

Today Fold-Pak makes oyster pails in much the same way Wilcox suggested, albeit using solid-bleached-sulfate paperboard with a poly-coating on the inside for more grease- and leak-resistance. The company has also made adjustments for modern-day behaviors: it offers microwave-safe Chinese-food cartons that use glue instead of wire and nondyed, environmentally friendly containers. It’s a growing market, Federico says. But the traditional takeout container doesn’t seem bound for extinction. “In America, if you just drew an icon of a box, people would understand exactly what it is,” Prince said. “That’s a lot of power.”

Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D. 

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