The Hidden History of the Art of the Container to Go


At the diner last week, the waitress briskly pushed me a tray of pancakes. On a rattling TV, reporters asked customers what they thought of New Jersey’s new law banning disposable plastic and paper bags. “One of the strictest in the country,” the journalist intoned.

As I struggled to finish my pancakes, I listened to him explain how that law extends to styrofoam takeaways as well. Just before I left, the waitress even offered me one: a classic white flap shell.

I personally support the ban on styrofoam boxes. Not only are they bad for the environment, they’re also … boring.

“But Annie,” you wonder, “aren’t all the containers to take away boring?” Not! For this work, I spoke with passionate collectors of detailed printed pizza boxes and observed plastic sushi containers collected by the Smithsonian.

Takeaway containers – especially for pizza, Chinese food and sushi – have cult art and style. Admittedly, it’s not always the most elegant or politically correct, but some of these designs are now immediately recognizable. So, today we explore the origins of the smiling chef of the famous pizza box, the ubiquitous red pagoda of American-Chinese food for the outside and the surprising elegance of plastic sushi trays.

Who drew this ubiquitous picture?
Who drew this ubiquitous picture? Public domain

A winking chef

A few years ago, I interviewed Scott Weiner, owner of the world’s largest collection of pizza boxes. His boxes, which are brand new and fat-free, range from Domino’s R2-D2-shaped boxes to fancy white pizzeria boxes adorned with only minimalist black text.

Still, my favorite pizza box motif is the Winking Chef. This piece of art has adorned millions of pizza boxes over the years: a cheerful man with a tall chef’s hat, winking, with his hand raised in an “a-ok” sign. You’ve probably seen a similar man printed on menus outside or as a statuette in front of a restaurant holding a list of specialties.

But who was the first to put a pencil on paper and draw this smug cookbook? Weiner dived into researching his origins, noticing along the way that the chef, while immediately recognizable, often changes – sometimes winking, other times just consciously raising an eyebrow.

One day, Weiner came across the Holy Grail: a pizza box printed with a signed illustration. The chef on this box didn’t wink and held a slice of pizza rather than make any gesture. It was the work of American cartoonist Gill Fox, who was twice nominated for a Pulitzer Prize at the height of his 20th century.

In Fox’s 2004 obituary New York Times he claimed that “a certified chef, hints and a true AO.K sign” is his work, although the signed illustration Weiner found contained neither a hint nor a gesture. The standard clip-art chef looks much rougher drawn than Fox’s work, although the chef’s hat, scarf and mustache are suspiciously similar.

Fox is said to have drawn the chef in the early 1950s, copying the style of a colleague from work and jokingly selling it to a clip-art service. Perhaps the chef has undergone pencil plastic surgery over the years, tweaked by other artists. Today, the aforementioned chef is an implicit promise – from the pizzeria to the customer – that good food is waiting in the box.

Your Chinese takeaway containers probably look like this.
Your Chinese takeaway containers probably look like this. Gabriel Saldana / CC BY-SA 2.0

Porcelain pagoda

The Chinese box to take away is a marvel of engineering. Originating from 19th-century oyster bins, the folded wax cardboard design was patented by Frederick Weeks Wilcox in 1894 and has changed very little since then.

For most of the 1900s the small box was plain and white. That changed in the 1970s.

According to New York Times, the designer in the current Fold-Pak decided to add a drawing of the pagoda with a red line on the side. The van container maker also added the words “Thank you” and “Enjoy,” in what is now derisively known as the “wonton” font, letters used in 20th-century American marketing that mimic the moves of Chinese calligraphy.

The designer is unknown to this day, but it is now rare to see a Chinese takeaway box without a red pagoda and fake calligraphy.

Few years ago, Xinhuathe official state newspaper of the People’s Republic of China, published an article explaining the containers, which are a common sight in American series and movies, but do not exist in China itself.

Picture, according to Xinhua, is a Porcelain Tower, a pagoda built in Nanjing from the 15th century. The 9-story, 260-foot-high building, enclosed by glazed porcelain bricks, was considered a miracle both in China and abroad. In the West, some writers have regarded it as one of the seven wonders of the Middle Ages, a category that includes Hagia Sophia and the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

Unfortunately, the original tower fell victim to the chaos of the Taiping Rebellion in 1856, when rebels razed it to the ground. If this long-forgotten Fold-Pak designer really used it as a model for his shorter, simpler tower, they certainly relied on old paintings of the building drawn by Chinese and European artists.

But the Porcelain Tower stands today again. In 2015, the Chinese government completed a full-size replica in Nanjing Park dedicated to the history and importance of the building.

Plastic sushi containers can be extremely complex.
Plastic sushi containers can be extremely complex. DigiPub / Getty Images

Sushi spectacle

Sushi is a fresh fish that artists prepare with sharp knives and sell for hundreds of dollars at chefs ’tables; these are also trays with imitations of crabs sitting under the hum of fluorescent lights in stores.

The other style of sushi, however, still retains a certain elegance, mostly thanks to its presentation: in a shiny, decorated plastic tray with a transparent lid.

Many plastic sushi trays, if made of wood instead, would be pretty nice. What is the origin of their attractive design – they are based on traditional Japanese plates.

“Colored paper often comes with printed embellishments, replicating the types of designs typically found on Japanese cookware, making it a critical feature in effective product marketing like Japanese,” reads the National Museum of American History website.

Popular motifs include mountain scenes, flowers, brocade patterns, red maple leaves and temari balls representing youth, friendship and the New Year.

Your average sushi tray is black, with dark red and gold pieces – an imitation of Japanese lacquered dishes, or war Black, red and gold are the most common colors in the production of lacquered pottery, which is truly ancient art, dating back to the Neolithic era. (Real wood varnish is phenomenally expensive and can even be gilded with real gold.)

NMAH actually owns a collection of plastic sushi containers, many of which were produced by the Advanced Fresh Concepts Corporation. Founded by Ryuji Ishii, who craved affordable sushi in the United States, the company was the first to pre-pack and ship large quantities of sushi to U.S. stores. Ishii managed to make sushi ubiquitous and, as an added credit, made these plastic versions of fine crockery equally common.

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