Right now, whether you're at work or at home, in a drawer somewhere near you is probably a packet of soy sauce—a squishy, likely clear pouch of transclucent saltiness left over from a late-night Chinese-takeout binge or a hurried workday lunch. These packets are remarkably common: In terms of sales, soy sauce is the third-most-popular condiment in the U.S., behind only mayonnaise and ketchup.
But as ubiquitous as soy-sauce packets are, no one knows where they first came from. The major players in the to-go soy-sauce industry today—KariOut and W Y Industries—don’t claim to have created the packet. Some have attributed the design to Ben Eisenstadt—the founder of the sugar-substitute manufacturer Sweet’N Low and the designer of his company’s trademark bubblegum-pink packets—but that connection remains unconfirmed.
The first sign of a soy-sauce packet that resembles the one popular today is a 1955 patent, filed by two men named Harold M. Ross and Yale Kaplan, that outlines a “dispensing container for liquids.” The packet would hold “a single serving” of “sauce or syrup,” which could be extracted with a squeeze.
But a key feature of Ross and Kaplan’s design that differs from soy sauce packets today is that “the flow of fluid will stop and any possible leakage will be prevented” as soon as the pressure is released. As anyone who has stained his or her shirt with errant soy sauce can attest, the brown, salty liquid isn’t nearly viscous enough for this to hold true; Ross and Kaplan’s brainchild was much better suited to ketchup.