Chinese-American take-out trays were actually intended for… oysters!

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There is a whole history behind the packaging of our food. This time Culy dives into the iconic takeout container. Not the rectangular plastic tray you get with roti, keng kiou waan tahoe (Thai green curry) or when you order a portion of palak paneer in the Netherlands, but the origami-like Chinese-American version of paper. 


Have you ever ordered Chinese in America, or seen the trays in your favorite television series ( Friends for example)? The Chinese-American takeout tray is an icon. One look at the folded shape and the red pagoda and you know exactly what’s in it: Chinese food. 

Let’s take a look at the history of this iconic takeout container and how its design set the standard for Chinese American takeout culture. Small spoiler: the tray has nothing to do with China.

The oyster bucket

Although the take-away tray was inspired in style by Japanese origami folding techniques, the design was completely Western. The American inventor FW Wilcox took an example from the oyster bucket: a wooden bucket in which raw oysters can be transported. 

Inspired by the design, Wilcox tried to create a bucket that would be ideal for food packaging. He quickly ruled out wood because it is a porous material, making it difficult to disinfect after each use. The absorbent quality of wood makes it the ideal place for bacteria. But of course you don’t want that with you!

To overcome these health risks, he chose paper because of its disposable nature. As a result, Wilcox successfully patented the paper take-out box in 1894 ! The waxed inside of the folded paper box works similar to the original oyster bucket. It lets liquids and moisture in and can expand into a dinner plate, although most people grab their chopsticks and eat straight from the container. Also handy: the paper container is cost effective and easy to carry.

The Origins of Sino-American Takeout Culture

The invention of the takeout tray went hand in hand with the influx of Chinese immigrants to America in the mid-1800s. The spontaneous influx had everything to do with The California Gold Rush : a gold rush that began on January 24, 1848, when gold was found by James W. Marshall at Sutter’s Mill in Coloma.

The news of gold brought about 300,000 people to California, including Chinese immigrants who soon began opening restaurants to earn a living, and because they craved the food from home. 

The paper take-out tray turned out to be the perfect container for food. Not only is the tray leak-proof, the dishes also stay warm. Since then, paper take-out containers and Chinese food have been inseparable – Chinese-American food, we must say, because you don’t find the containers in China.

takeaway trays

New design takeout tray

Finally, in the 1970s, a Fold-Pak graphic designer made an update to the plain white box. The box now features an illustration of a red pagoda with the text “Thank You” above it in a faux Chinese font, to give the impression of Chinese calligraphy. As a result, Americans got an even stronger association with Chinese cuisine, which resulted in an increasing use of the containers among Chinese owners.

Though the red and white paper oyster bucket is considered the most iconic takeout container for Chinese meals, the designs are beginning to change. Restaurants are increasingly printing their own design on the trays. After all, it was the branding that made the tray so successful and uniquely Chinese-American.

Source: Culy by
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