202205 3 02       By Elaine Dunn | May 2022

 

The Chinese can proudly lay claim to many inventions: the compass, gun powder, paper, the mechanical clock and a host of many other items.  However, they cannot take credit for one of the most iconic items associated with Chinese takeout in the U.S.! 

Aside from the fortune cookie, what’s the other most-used item associated with Chinese takeouts?  The ubiquitous, almost leak-proof takeout carton, of course!  The takeout carton is an American invention. Chicago, to be exact.

According to the Digital Research Library of Illinois History, this amazing container was invented and patented by one Frederick Weeks Wilcox, president of the Wilcox Paper Company of Chicago, on April 29, 1890, in Chicago. 

Wilcox called his creation the “paper pail.”  It was made up of one single piece of cardboard paper and folded ingeniously, origami-style, into a “pail.”  Wilcox’s “paper pail” was so called because it was based on the wooden pails used for transporting oysters back then.  In the 19th century, along the east coast, oysters happened to be one of the most popular food items at the time – plentiful and affordable, even for the working class (see accompanying “Oyster facts”)!  However, shucking oysters is difficult and messy, so the fishermen would sell them shucked.  Oysters, once shucked, don’t stay fresh for long.  The “paper pail,” with its interlocking tabs on top and waxed inner surface allowed liquid and moisture to stay in and provided a sanitary way of carrying freshly shucked raw oysters home for cooking.  It was also less expensive and lighter, compared to the wooden pail, durable and leak-proof if kept upright.  It was also nonporous so the oyster juice would not be absorbed into the carton.  It was a decided improvement on the wooden pail used by oyster fishermen at the time.

202205 3 03

 

Wilcox also got a patent for a significantly improved version on Nov. 13, 1894. 

Shortly after, in 1908, Bloomer Bros. Paper Co. of Newark, New Jersey, started mass producing Wilcox’s design for toting more than just oysters.  They were used as a carry-all for everything from ice cream to live goldfish!  The cardboard pail became the top-selling product for Bloomer Bros.

After World War II, the supply of oysters started to dwindle because of pollution and overfishing. Oyster prices began to rise and became less affordable.  Meanwhile, the demand for “Chinese” takeout foods in the U.S. began to take off.  As young families moved to the suburbs, the demand for convenient Chinese food delivery also increased. The sturdy origami-inspired “paper pail” seemed ideal for the sauce-heavy “Chinese” takeout foods as the fold-up top allows steam to escape.  When the top flaps are “unlocked,” the wide opening allows eating directly out of the carton.  Or … if one is really careful and the contents are not too runny, the carton can be completely unfolded flat to do double duty as a (flimsy) plate!

By the 1960s, Bloomer Bros. had become the Riegel Paper Corporation.  During the 1970s, one of Riegel’s graphic designers decided to add a bit of embellishment to the white takeout carton.  He added the signature pagoda and the words “Enjoy” and “Thank you” in an Asian-looking font in red ink to the carton.  (The color red is symbolic of good fortune in the Chinese culture.)

Fold-Pak Corporation bought Riegel in 1977.  It continues to produce Wilcox’s oyster paper pails in much the same way, with a few upgrades: solid-bleached-sulfate paperboard with a poly-coating on the inside for more grease- and leak-resistance.  In addition, adjustments to accommodate an essential modern-day kitchen appliance, the microwave oven, were made by using glue instead of the wire handle.  The Chinese takeout food cartons also used non-dyed, environmentally friendly materials. The market for the iconic Chinese takeout carton is growing and the traditional takeout container doesn’t seem bound for extinction any time soon. Today, Fold-Pak is the world’s top producer of Chinese takeout cartons, assembling in excess of 300 million units per year.

In America, one can just draw the shape of the food carton and it would be instantly recognizable.  Everyone would understand exactly what it is and associate it with Chinese takeout/leftover food! 

Ironically, as Fold-Pak’s Marketing Manager David Federico, put it in a 2012 interview, “We don’t sell them in China.” 

Even though mainland Chinese would not be eating out of American “Chinese” takeout cartons, the fashion conscious are not opposed to takeout carton-inspired handbags! 

When various designers included takeout carton-inspired purses in their collections, fashion commentators did not object.  Chanel’s 2010 metallic fabric “take-away box” sold out, even at $7,500!  Kate Spade’s 2014 collection included a very literal version of the takeout carton, at a whopping $799!  In 2017, Kylie and Kendall Jenner released a $150 takeout carton lookalike bag.  “Beverly Hills Bag Lady” Kathrine Baumann’s takeout clutch with Swarovski crystals retails in excess of $3,000-plus, if you’re lucky enough to find one.  Of course, there are myriad cheap knockoffs, probably made in China, but you get what you pay for.

 

202205 3 04

 

202205 3 05

Baumann bag

Chanel bag

202205 3 06

202205 3 07

Jenner bag

Spade bag

202205 3 08

202205 3 09

Vintage bag

Knockoff bag

 

And, you know the lowly Chinese takeout carton has definitely achieved pop culture status when they become table lamps.  In five different colors.  Each color features a Chinese character representing good luck (green), prosperity (mustard yellow), longevity (purple), double happiness (red) and (okay, this is a little questionable!) sexy in black.  And each comes with its own pair of chopsticks.  Oh my!

202205 3 10  Table lamps

 

 

 

By the numbers 

·         Minimum of 40,000 Chinese restaurants operating in the U.S. prior to the COVID-19 pandemic

·         GrubHub’s fourth most popular dish among its 4.57 million active diners: General Tso’s chicken

·         2022 industry statistics show there are 23,661 Chinese restaurants in the U.S.

·         2022 market size of the industry, measured by revenue, is projected to be $20.2 billion, an increased growth rate of 11%.

 

 

 

Oyster facts

While eating oysters today will set anyone back an arm and a leg, back in the 19th century, oysters were so plentiful and cheap they were used as a substitute for twice-as-expensive beef in stews and soups.  In fact, one of the most popular Victorian dishes with the lower class was oyster pie!  Sean O’Scannlain, president and CEO of Fortune Fish Company, which supplies fresh seafood to many of Chicago’s finer retailers and dining establishments today said oysters were “the peanuts of the 19th century” – a salty bar snack saloons sold cheaply or even gave away to their customers to get them to drink more beer!

New Englanders settled in Chicago, bringing with them a taste for oysters. The first fresh oysters were delivered by sleigh on a bed of ice from New Haven, Connecticut, and served at the Lake House Hotel on Kinzie Street in 1838.  By the 1840s, Chicago had become a huge oyster town.  However, the 1924 typhoid outbreaks in Chicago were tied to oysters and demand declined.

 

Keywords: paper pails, oyster pails, takeout container, Chinese takeout food, Chinese takeout food box, food facts, takeout food container, food cartons

 

 

 

Terms Of Use

Terms of Use All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without prior written permission of the publisher. For permission requests, contact [email protected] with subject line “Permission request.”

About

CHINAINSIGHT (CI) is published monthly ((except July/August and November/December are combined) by China Insight, Inc., an independent, privately owned company started in 2001 and headquartered in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota.

CHINAINSIGHT is the only English-language American newspaper to focus exclusively on connections between the United States and the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

Our goal is to develop a mutual understanding of each other’s cultures and business environments and to foster U.S.-China cultural and business harmony.