Mini Object Lesson: Ketchup's Forgotten Wisdom

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

As a kid, I remember reading an issue of MAD magazine with a feature on “‘New -and-Improved’ products that really are new-and-improved.” Among them: an olive jar with a bottom shelf attached by a pillar to the lid, such that opening it brought the olives to the top for easy retrieval. They were right; it really was new and improved.

Since then, a cornucopia of similarly inspired product packaging has entered into service. Many of them really do seem like improvements, too. For example, ketchup in a squeeze bottle rather than a glass one. No more scooping knives. No more striking the bottom, only to see half the contents splurt onto the plate. (By the way, you should have been swatting the neck instead this whole time).

As time passed, the humble squeeze bottle evolved still further. Nowadays, it boasts a thick, flip-open nozzle on its bottom rather than on top. That way, the ketchup settles down toward the opening while at rest in the fridge or on the table, obviating the need even to remember the neck trick, let alone to use it. An American circa 2016 might face many challenges, but deploying condiments, at least, would not seem to be among them.

But alas, on this front we have all been misled. For all their apparent novelty, condiment bottles mostly have sold consumers a tale of improvement in order to create differentiation and cement brand affinity (not to mention cold, hard cash: the inventor of the valve essential to the upside-down bottle sold his invention for $13 million).

In some cases, like shampoo, which also uses the design, a downward-facing bottle offers only upside: In the shower, you want a goodly glop of conditioner in the palm. But ketchup and mustard require precision application. Too much condiment on a burger or sandwich overwhelms its innards (and yours). And the unpredictable expurgation of the large-valved bottoms-up bottle creates both an unwieldy and an uneven measure of condiment. What good is all this innovation if you just end up spreading the goods around with a knife anyway? We could have stuck with glass bottles.

Fortunately, there is an answer, and it is neither new nor improved: the classic condiment dispenser of yore, with its cylindrical, plastic body and needle-tipped opening. These days they’re sold mostly as retro-nostalgia objects, as if it would simply be cute or ironic to provide them for burgers at cookouts or for hot dogs at birthdays.

It’s too bad, because these are the most functional vessels for doling out dollops. Ordinary ketchup and mustard bottles are thick-walled to make them more resilient during shipping and shelving, but the classic bottle is thin, meant to be filled later and then stored in one place. The pliancy affords harder squeezing, allowing the product to be coaxed toward the mouth without air pockets forming, which can disrupt a smooth extraction. Then the thin, pointed tip of the bottle allows for greater control and more even spreading.

And thus in ketchup as in life, age and wisdom prevail over novelty and bluster, even if unsung.

(See all Mini Object Lessons here. Read longer Lessons and books at