Business, Design, Food

Inside The (Chinese) Box

A Chinese takeout box.

For the past few days, M. and I have been noshing on Chinese takeout: fried noodles, cold noodles, blazing hot kung pao chicken, steamed buns, dumplings.

And this set me thinking about the box we ate out of. M. tells me that its design is inspired by the architecture of pagodas. As it turns out, the two are only as connected as are a cinder block and a persimmon. Chinese takeout boxes are officially called “oyster pails.” The name is no accident of imagination.

Back in the early 1900s, when oysters weren’t anything more than tasty mollusks and weren’t chic status symbols as they’re today, people bought them by the bags. Since shucking oysters is somewhat difficult, it wasn’t unusual for buyers to have the shells removed by the oyster seller. They would pack the meat in paperboard oyster pails, which were cheap and easy-to-carry as well as hygienic.

During the Fifties, with the Tupperware explosion and the craze for pre-cooked dinners heating up in the U.S., Chinese takeout became popular. Chinese restaurants adopted the oyster pails, by then, defunct, and repurposed them as delivery containers for dry food.


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