The Atlantic Daily: Why Are Ketchup Bottles So Hard to Use?

Why your cookout favorites are the way they are. Plus: some safety rules for vaccinated summer travels.

A smiley face and a frowning face made in ketchup, against a yellow background
Katie Martin / The Atlantic

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The world works in strange ways, and interesting design choices can often be found in the everyday objects we overlook. Here are two to think about just in time for summer.

Ketchup bottles. If you’re old enough to remember glass Heinz ketchup bottles, you might also recall how frustrating they were to use. You’d strike the bottom until, eventually, a huge blob would splurt out, ruining your plate.

Heinz’s current bottle is squeezable and it relocates the dispenser to the bottom, but its valve is so tight that a heap of ketchup still comes out with each squeeze.

I compared the Heinz squeezable bottle with the cylindrical, fine-tipped sort that adorn many a diner and picnic table. I could get that generic bottle to output 30 times less condiment per squeeze, and in a fine line instead of a wide dollop. Today’s bottle might be good for a fry-dipping excursion, but it releases too much ketchup to dress a burger or hot dog.

The earlier, cheaper packaging technology seems superior. So why would Heinz deploy a worse—or at least less flexible—design?

Daniel Johnson, the chair of packaging science at Rochester Institute of Technology, assured me that big companies such as Kraft Heinz put lots of R&D behind their packaging. The ketchup bottle would have been subject to focus-group studies of usage preferences, bottle-holding habits, and more. A Heinz spokesperson told me, “We’ve found that our consumers prefer a dollop to top a burger or for dipping.”

That would explain why the bottle works the way it does, but it can’t stop me from lamenting such a one-note use of our nation’s favorite condiment. Invest in a cheap, picnic-type bottle and dispense from the brand-name bottle into it for a more versatile squeeze.

Seedless watermelon. Stephanie Barlow, a senior director at the National Watermelon Promotion Board, told me that more than 90 percent of watermelons consumed in the United States today are seedless. The change happened slowly and then quickly: The first seedless hybrid melons appeared in the mid-20th century, but industrial farmers didn’t figure out how to pollinate them effectively at scale until the mid-2000s.

That’s changed how watermelon gets eaten. Seeded melons were best consumed as wedges, with the seeds removed by hand, napkin, or—the traditional method—expectoration. But sans seeds, the watermelon came to enjoy more diverse uses: in fruit salads, in leafy salads, and even on pizza.

The latter recipe is one that the watermelon board suggests in a promotional campaign tied to the release of Disney Pixar’s new animated film Luca, which is set in anguria-loving, mid-century Italy. Watermelon appears fleetingly in the film, when two girls on a balcony can be seen eating it in wide wedges—complete with seeds. A promotional image created by Pixar, not the watermelon board, even shows the film’s sea monsters enjoying big smiles of black-seeded fruit.

Barlow told me that the watermelon board has stressed using only seedless-watermelon imagery in its communications. “But the visual of the seeded watermelon slice prevails,” she admitted.

That’s probably because of the fruit’s symbolic relationship with summertime nostalgia. Luca’s Italian Riviera memories are of a piece with my own from American summer camps. When it comes to watermelons, we eat the fruit, but we also consume the image.

Do any ordinary things make you wonder, Why is it like that? Send them to

The news in three sentences:

(1) One person is dead and dozens are unaccounted for, after a building collapsed near Miami, police say. (2) Calls to “Free Britney” continue, following the pop star’s brutal plea in court yesterday. (3) “Infrastructure Week” may finally be over: President Joe Biden has announced a bipartisan compromise.

One question, answered: What do I do if I’m traveling and my seatmate won’t wear a mask? Our deputy managing editor Rachel Gutman has some advice:

If you’re fully vaccinated and not immunosuppressed or immunocompromised, you shouldn’t be in any significant danger from a seatmate with their nose out. On any long trip, your fellow passengers are going to need to eat and drink, and you should be prepared for that eventuality before buying a ticket.

If you’re particularly worried about mask compliance, you might want to opt for travel by train or plane, where conductors and flight attendants are more likely to be patrolling the rows. But that doesn’t eliminate the possibility of a free-for-all at the station or airport before you board.

Find more safety rules for vaccinated summer travels in Rachel’s new article. And if you want tips for a fun vacation, not just a safe one, our happiness columnist, Arthur C. Brooks, has you covered.

Tonight’s Atlantic-approved activity:

Listen to the newest episode of The Experiment podcast, in which the sex therapist and Holocaust survivor Dr. Ruth shares advice with our staff writer Emma Green on how to find pleasure and purpose after life-changing loss.

Today’s break from the news:

Scientists have a beautifully straightforward technique for detecting planets around other stars. Our space reporter Marina Koren asks: Could alien astronomers use it to find us?

Every weekday evening, our editors guide you through the biggest stories of the day, help you discover new ideas, and surprise you with moments of delight. Subscribe to get this delivered to your inbox.