Why is there a tiger instead of a manatee on my cereal box? And why is cereal sold in a box at all? In what ways does packaging affect the supermarket shelves we see and the choices we make? These are some of the questions I have been researching as a food historian and a member of the National Museum of American History's Food and Wine History Team.
Package colors, materials, and other design elements are very deliberate. Much like advertising, packaging appeals to our emotions and directs our attention to specific product features, like health claims or a free toy, while distracting attention from other details, like small serving sizes or questionable ingredients. Below, I've shared how contemplating packaging -- and the unspoken dialogue between consumers and producers -- is one way I try to understand the connection between supermarkets and food consumption habits in the United States.
When I came across a set of 7-Up bottles in a storage area, I learned that they were collected because of their relationship to a nation-wide campaign to adopt the metric system in the late 1970s and early '80s (all of the bottles are either one or two liters in size). But what struck me most about their packaging was not their size, or their experimental shape, but that the bottles were made of glass.
All soft drink bottles used to be made of glass and supermarkets were once a place where empty bottles were returned "for deposit." In the 1950s and earlier, bottlers actually washed the empties and re-filled them. Now, of course, bottles are mostly made of plastic and recycled if it's convenient to do so. Very few states require deposits to be paid on plastic bottles, and because the composition of plastic can vary, recycling it is less straightforward than recycling glass. Plastic is often preferred by producers and consumers, however, for its extreme versatility, lighter weight, and resistance to shattering.
Groceries weren't always displayed on such orderly, open-access shelving. Before expansive supermarkets with wide aisles became common, goods were located on shelves behind a counter and retrieved by a store clerk upon request. The version of grocery shopping popular today has a specific name: self-service.
When the self-service idea was new, a few industries actively promoted it as a way to sell their products to retailers. Manufacturers of shopping carts and open-style refrigerated cases were early proponents of customers serving themselves.
Another promoter of the self-service supermarket was E. I. DuPont de Nemours & Company. Invested in the production of cellophane since the 1920s, they recognized the many uses for their product in such an environment. DuPont encouraged both retailers and consumers to see cellophane and self-service as appealing, convenient, and profitable.
For shoppers, cellophane advertisements promised greater convenience and cleanliness, without any loss of freedom to see the contents of the package. DuPont believed that if consumers preferred wrapped products and serving themselves, then more store managers would feel compelled to provide it.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.