How innovation made an American favorite easier to deliver and better to eat
Here's the technology problem: you've got a warm, moisture-emitting object that also contains relatively dry components that you need to get from Point A to Point B with their form, heat, and chemical composition intact. Oh, and the top of the object is covered with a sticky, viscous substance. And you need to be able to do it by the millions, so the solution has to be cheap and mass producible.
The solution to this problem is the modern corrugated pizza box, which helps get a big chunk of the three billion pizzas sold each year in the United States to happy customers.
Yes, the box in which your pizza comes in is a marvel of minor but well-formed proportions. The constraints of the problem are clear. Take the sogginess problem. If you completely seal up this object, the moisture will make its drier parts soggy. If you vent it too much, you'll lose the heat.
"All design involves choice, and the choices often have to be made to satisfy competing constraints," avers engineer-author Henry Petroski in talking about plastic tripods in pizza boxes (more on those later).
Since at least the 1800s, the bakers of Naples have had a solution for the problem of transporting pizza. They put hot pies into metal containers known as stufas and sent young touts into the streets to sell the food. The stufa was a round, vented tin or copper container with shelves that held the pizzas apart from one another.
While that might have worked for the streets of Naples -- or other dense cities -- it wasn't going to work for the delivery business. There were two solutions to the problem for the exploding post-war American pizza market. First, there were regular old boxes, but those had a major defect. The moisture from the pizza would make the box all floppy. Oil could end up seeping easily through the bottom, too. Second, as described by Scott Weiner, who I would say is the undisputed expert on pizza mobility solutions, you could *bag* the pizza.
"In the 1940's, lots of pizza purveyors offered take-out pies," Weiner writes. "The pizza would sit on a stiff corrugated base, which could slide snugly into a large paper bag."
The bag, while it kept heat in and allowed some moisture to escape, provided no protection for the pizza's face. They worked OK for take-out, but what about delivery? It's hard to transport more than one pie in a bag.
In the traditional story of the pizza box, Tom Monaghan's pizza empire, Domino's, developed the corrugated box in the early 1960s, marking a major advance in pizza technology. These wonder boxes could be stacked. They had vents. All around, the flatpacked, foldable corrugated pizza box was one of those small inventions that seem almost inevitable after someone comes up with it.
What's fascinating is that many, many people were trying. Teasing apart all the strands of the patent literature on the point of paper products for transporting food is nearly impossible nowadays. Domino's held no patents on their box, as far as I can tell, and there were dozens of other people who had solutions for packaging pizzas that were very similar to the ones we use now. (Oddly, bacon package design seems to have been top of mind for pizza box designers. Not sure why, but I understand it.) Advances in paper production and market demand for disposable food containers combined to send lots of inventors charging into the box space.