Folded white cardboard boxes are a universally recognized symbol of Chinese food across America. Seemingly employed by every neighborhood Chinese restaurant across the country, they’re used to package orders for delivery or takeout (or sometimes to package up leftovers), and can typically found stuffed full of Americanized fare like General Tso’s chicken and lo mein.
These boxes are so ubiquitous that they frequently appear in pop culture, spotted in movies like Rush Hour and Dude, Where’s My Car; TV shows like Friends, The West Wing, and Gilmore Girls; and even in modern art. A history of the paper pails was also included in an exhibit at New York’s Museum of Food and Drink.
But where did these containers come from, and how did they come to be used so widely? Here’s a look into the history of these iconic vessels, at least a few of which have probably haunted your refrigerator in recent months.
Who invented the Chinese food takeout container?
Much like General Tso’s chicken, these takeout containers are an American invention. In 1894, Chicago inventor named Frederick Weeks Wilcox patented what he called a “paper pail.” Taking inspiration in part from Japanese origami, the paper pail consisted of a single piece of folded material intended to prevent leakage, with a small wire handle attached to the top for carrying.
Where does the unique shape of the container come from?
The container was modeled after wooden receptacles used to carry raw oysters in the 19th century. (You’re probably not going to find anyone carrying Blue Points or Malteques on the half shell around in them these days, however.)
What prompted the container’s meteoric rise in the takeout world?
Chinese food delivery took off during the post-World War II as America experienced a suburban migration. The U.S. had seen an influx of Chinese immigrants to California in the early 1900s, and a corresponding growth in popularity of Chinese cuisine. Now, the containers are an integral part of American Chinese food.
What’s so special about the design of this box?
The advantage of having a container constructed using just one piece of cardboard is that it can fold out into a makeshift plate for easy access to tangled noodles and simplified post-dinner cleanup. The containers also fit easily inside one another, so can be easily stored in tall stacks before they’re filled with sesame chicken and delivered to customers’ doors.
Who makes these containers?
Several companies produce the boxes here in the United States, but the most dominant is Fold-Pak, which has as much as 70 percent of the market share.
What innovations have been made since the box was first introduced?
Sometimes the takeout boxes aren’t just plain white: many come stamped with a red pagoda and a “thank you” on top. In the 1970s, a designer working for Fold-Pak added the graphic in an attempt to give the containers a stronger association with Asian culture. A poly coating has also been added to the inside to make the boxes more impermeable to grease and moisture. There are also microwave-safe versions free of the wire handles, and eco-friendly versions made with unbleached paper.
Are these better than styrofoam or plastic containers?
They’re definitely more environmentally friendly than the styrofoam clamshell-type takeout boxes used by some restaurants. (Unlike paper, styrofoam isn’t biodegradable.) But the wax or plastic coating on the takeout boxes, as with paper to-go cups, can cause some issues with recycling. The plastic containers with separate, snug-fitting lids used by many restaurants to hold things like egg drop soup have their own advantages, though, in that they can be washed and reused many times.
• The Chinese-Takeout Container Is Uniquely American [NY Times]
• Unfold a Chinese Takeout Box Into an Emergency Plate [Lifehacker]
• All Explainers Coverage [E]