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 Wiener, 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,” Wiener 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.
Whoever or however the standard corrugated pizza box came into being, it is the event around which pizza packaging history revolves, moving from Before Corrugation to After Domino’s. Most pizza places still use this fifty-year-old technology in one form or another.
But that’s not to say that there hasn't been any innovation in the pizza box space. FAR FROM IT!
Inside most pizza boxes now, right in the center of the container, you’ll find a plastic tripod often shaped like a mid-century modern table. It holds up the center of the pizza box to avoid cardboard smashing down on the cheese on the top of the pizza. Petroski has a hilarious discussion of how much people like these things in his book, Small Things Considered. A caller to a radio program starts things off by gushing over them.
“The engineer confessed to having saved some of the humble devices as examples of clever functional design that he thought he might write about some day,” Petroski writes. “No one called in to ask for a better description of the throwaway thing, or to offer its name. But such identifications were not needed for it to be recognized, admired for its ingenuity, and appreciated for its purpose.”
It was one of a number of tweaks to the pizza box (venting configurations, say) that have improved upon the old designs. Now, some boxes designed for easier recycling, or come with holders for dipping sauces, or transform into plates. Like everything else, pizza boxes have gone niche and they can be made to order for very specific food transport situations.
But there is another near universal pizza delivery enhancement: the insulated sleeve. You know the thing I'm talking about. It's what the delivery guy pulls your pizza out of. It’s worth noting, I think, for the idea it embodies. Petroski said that all design requires one to work with constraints. In the pizza case, as we’ve discussed, the big one is the moisture/heat retention continuum. The more closed you keep the box, the more heat stays in, but the greater the chance that the moisture ruins the crust.
The pizza sleeve designs around that constraint. Some designer (who probably worked for Domino’s) said, “Let’s separate out the heat retaining and moisture battling components of the box.” Vent to your heart’s content to control moisture, but keep the pizza in an insulated sleeve, so that the heat stays in. The pizza and the box stay the same, but the system of delivery changes. That’s brilliant.
Now that pizza delivery containers have reached a sufficient level of advanced development, I think it’s about time our nation’s engineers turned their eyes on an even tougher problem that's long stumped the country's growing Latino population. Inventors, on behalf of my whole family, particularly my father, I implore you to explore this question: how do you keep corn tortillas warm and pliant?
Images: Google Patents.