Supermarket Packaging: The Shift From Glass to Aluminum to Plastic

A few surveys conducted by DuPont's Market Research Section of the Cellophane Division helpfully explained the advantages of cellophane to butchers, food producers, and "smart merchandisers." One report, "Design for Selling: A Study of Impulse Buying,"  concluded that half of all buying decisions were made in the store and therefore, "point of sale factors, such as display and packaging become all-important to stimulate unplanned, impulse buying." And although self-service may have seemed like a threat to the butcher's job, the report, "Self-Service Meats: Progress Report on a Promising New Development," claimed that with the help of cellophane, it would streamline their operations and consumers would buy more if they could serve themselves.

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A DuPont report on impulse buying.

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A report recommending the use of cellophane packaging to maximize efficiency and profit.

The ads, surveys, and reports do not reveal how convincing they were to the intended audiences. But the popularity and staying power of clear, flexible food packaging and the rapid decline in full-service meat, cheese, and produce counters reflect major transformations in the way food is produced for the supermarket and presented to the public.

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E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Company, Cellophane Division, booklets from 1945 and 1946. Courtesy of the Hagley Museum & Library. Digital photos by Abbey Chamberlain.

Another seemingly small change on the supermarket shelf occurred inside one food package in particular: the TV dinner. When most people see the original TV dinner tray produced by Swanson's in the museum's collections, often they notice its small size first. The tray is of the earliest model produced in the 1950s before a fourth compartment was added for dessert in 1960.

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The Swanson's TV Dinner tray, circa 1954.

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Many see the TV Dinner as an icon of American culture. It represents a moment when pre-processed, pre-cooked food was still novel. It also symbolizes shifting definitions of 'meal time,' and our nation's enthusiastic embrace of the television.

An aluminum tray allowed the frozen dinner to be heated in an oven at home, while the divided compartments kept the food components separate and neat, which children found especially appealing. Beginning in the 1980s, Swanson recognized the increasing use of microwaves for re-heating food and switched to plastic trays for all of their frozen meal offerings.

The conveniences of pre-processed foods requiring minimal preparation have been popular with busy consumers. Since microwaves can readily be found in most households and in break rooms and cafeterias across the country, frozen meals in plastic trays are not just microwaveable, but more mobile, too.

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A page from the Tappan Microwave Cooking Guide, published in 1979, gives instructions on how to microwave a TV dinner. Although transferring the food to a plate was an option, it was only necessary if "the foil tray was more than 3/4 inch deep." Otherwise, just "cover dinner with plastic wrap, pleated to allow steam to expand." Photo taken by the author at the Reanimation Library.

Taken together, these objects and observations are examples of how tightly connected the shifts in packaging, purchasing, and consumption behaviors are to each other. A meandering examination of packaging, it turns out, is also a look into the increasing presence of plastic in the supermarket, in our lives, and in contact with our food. (The original cellophane produced by DuPont was a cellulose-based material made from wood. Plastic wraps made of PVC, a synthetic material derived from petroleum byproducts, replaced traditional cellophane beginning in the 1960s.)

While scientists, health professionals, and others have begun to question the effects of using so much plastic (What effect does it have on our bodies? In the landfills? To the natural environment?), I stumble onto other questions: How have we adapted to this material? Why do we find it so appealing? Did we behave differently before it became so common? Yet, I never set out to study this material. The predicament of having your research lead to bigger topics and even more questions can be frustrating. Or, if you're like me, it can be very satisfying and confirm the decision to study an expansive, interdisciplinary topic like food.

Images: Smithsonian Institution.


This post also appears on the Smithsonian's O Say Can You See? blog, an Atlantic partner site.

Presented by

Cory Bernat

Cory A. Bernat is a food historian, graphic designer, and member of the Food and Wine History Team at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History.

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