The History of Cellophane Packaging

published Jan 26, 2012
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Ever wondered why fruits and vegetables are wrapped in cellophane? Why cereal comes in cardboard boxes? Why soda bottles are sold in litres, not quarts? As a member of the National Museum of American History’s Food and Wine History Team, food historian Cory Bernat spends her time pondering such things in an effort to better understand the connection between supermarkets and food consumption habits in the United States.

Her article this week in The Atlantic addresses the supermarket’s transition to plastic, particularly the history of cellophane (and eventually plastic wrap) and its direct correlation to impulse buying. Here are a few takeaways:

  • Open-access shelving and self-service was a novel, game-changing strategy in its day. (It was initially seen as a threat to the full-service meat, cheese, and produce counters, and food producers were reluctant to implement it.)
  • Cellophane was introduced in the 1920’s, and the clear, flexible food packaging became “all-important to stimulate unplanned, impulse buying,” according to surveys conducted by DuPont’s Market Research Section of the Cellophane Division.
  • The original cellophane produced by DuPont was a cellulose-based material made from wood. Nowadays much of what we refer to as “cellophane” is actually plastic wrap made from petroleum-derived PVC, which replaced traditional cellophane beginning in the 1960’s.

Bernat concludes there’s good reason to be concerned about the rampant use of plastic. (We’ve written about staying away from plastic, too.) So we’re wondering: is cellophane/plastic wrap finally on its way out? Or are cellophane-wrapped products too ingrained into the grocery shopping experience to ever fully disappear?

(Image: The Atlantic)