IN THE UNITED STATES by the early twentieth century, all sorts of objects were being offered in newly attractive garb—creating a democracy of things. In the Old World, even after the industrial age had arrived, only expensive items were housed in their own box or elegantly wrapped. A watch or a jewel would be presented in a carefully crafted container, but the notion that a pound of sugar or a dozen crackers should be encased and offered for purchase in specially designed, attractive materials seemed outlandish. Essential to the American Standard of Living were new techniques for clothing objects to make them appealing advertisements for themselves. Industries spent fortunes improving the sales garb of inexpensive objects of daily consumption—a pack of cigarettes or a can of soup.
Just as the rise of factory-made clothing and the new American democracy of clothing leveled people and made it increasingly difficult to distinguish a man’s occupation, his bank account, or the status of his family by what he wore, so it was with packaging. Here was a new way of democratizing objects, of leveling and assimilating their appearance. By looking at a newly designed machine-made package, it was hard to tell the quality of the inside object, and sometimes hard to tell even what the object was.
Packaging, which by the mid-twentieth century dominated the consciousness of the American consumer, had entered the lives of Americans unheralded and unchronicled for the very reasons which made it distinctive. The rise of packaging was a parable of the unnoticed, multiplex, anonymous sources of innovation. Packaging overcast experience with yet another pall of ambiguity and became the dominant new fact of everyday epistemology. Packaging fuzzied the edges of things, making it hard to know where the desired physical object ended and where its environment began.
PACKING WAS, of course, as old as the making and moving of things. “To pack” meant “to put into a receptacle for transporting or storing.” And the purpose of packing was to keep a thing safe and secure, to make it portable or preservable. The better a thing was packed, the less apt it was to be damaged, the farther it could travel, the longer it could be stored. Packing served transportation. It is not surprising, then, that in the nineteenth century the United States pioneered in techniques and materials of packing. The American factories that aimed to serve a national or international market, the department stores that drew their merchandise from all over, and the mail-order houses that shipped their goods to remote parts—all these required secure and durable ways of shipping.
The American distances, whether served by wagons, railways, automobiles, or airplanes, posed problems of preparing and encasing goods which were never faced by makers for a local market. Refrigerator cars and canning were, of course, ways of packing goods for markets distant in time or space. Americans also developed other materials and machinery for moving their products safely around the world. Before the Civil War, flour was shipped in cotton sacks (which found many other uses on the farm), for no one had yet made a paper bag that could do the job. But when the war stopped the supply of cotton for flour millers, a papermaker in upstate New York produced a paper bag sturdy enough to carry fifty pounds of flour. By 1875, American machinery for making metal boxes was being exported to Britain. But during these years, the design of a parcel was still dominated by the needs of shipping and storage. Containers were large and protective, suitable for the rural housewife’s larder or for the floor of the country store.
Packaging (as it displaced packing) created whole new vistas for the consumer. For while packing was designed to transport and to preserve, packaging was designed to sell. Early in the twentieth century, “to package” had entered the American language as a verb. The story of packaging is the story of all the new things that Americans produced for sale. Packaging was a by-product of new American ways of selling, and the package itself became a new, and distinctively American, kind of salesman.
The wrapping of objects, naturally enough, had begun with the making of objects for sale. Gourds and banana leaves and baskets are still used in primitive markets. In western Europe in the days before mass production, wrapping itself was mostly a form of packing, designed to help the individual buyer carry home something he had bought. The package had not yet become part of the product for sale. There were a few exceptions. In the sixteenth century, German papermakers made wrappers for their own products. In the seventeenth century, quack medicines were sold in London in paper wrappers embellished with the signature of the inventor and an impressive coat of arms, and some tobacconists were using printed wrappers. Occasionally a wine bottle would bear the initialed seal of the tavern owner. But it was common in those days for a tea merchant’s advertisement to remind customers to “bring a convenient Box.” During the eighteenth century there was more packing of groceries, drugs, and cosmetics in forms convenient for the consumer. But still wrapping and labeling were less for sales appeal than for identification.
One reason for the slow progress of packaging was the scarcity of paper. In the seventeenth century the misjudgments of book publishers helped supply the lack. In those days it was not uncommon for a London bookseller to stock his books in the form of the unfolded, unbound printed sheets. When a customer wanted a book, the sheets would be put together, folded, and bound to his taste. The London bookseller’s stock of sheets that remained unsold as books could then readily be sold for papers to grocers and apothecaries; a theological tract that could not elevate the mind would at least serve to wrap potatoes. In the early nineteenth century these indignities became less common with the invention of papermaking machinery. Until then, paper had been made by hand, sheet by sheet, but in 1807 the Fourdrinier brothers in London patented a machine for making paper in continuous rolls. Within ten years Thomas Gilpin, using his own secret invention, produced in Delaware the first American machine-made paper, and others followed. Soon there were American machines that could turn out paper at the rate of forty-five feet per minute. New quick-drying machines made production independent of the weather, and every stage was speeded up. By 1830 the United States had become the greatest paper-producing and the greatest paper-consuming country in the world, and remained so.
With better machinery and increasing demand, there was a renewed search for raw materials to make paper cheaper and in larger quantity. The traditional European way of making paper required rags, and in colonial America the supply of rags had been especially scarce. After the middle of the seventeenth century, when people began papering their walls for decoration, the supply of rags became more inadequate than ever. Not until the early nineteenth century was paper made either from straw or wood pulp; by 1890 nearly all paper was being made from wood pulp. Then the paper supply was further increased by new ways of de-inking printed paper so that it could be re-pulped. This use of wood pulp for paper had the effect of denuding large tracts of the continent, transforming the beauties of primitive forests into tundras of unread newspapers. By 1934 a single machine operated by four men could turn out twenty tons of wood pulp a day. About this time a Georgia chemist discovered a new sulfate process by which Southern pine could be used for paper, and when this process was applied to other timbers it drastically reduced the cost of paper, besides providing a profitable use for Southern wastelands.
In the twentieth century the simplest and quickest form of packaging for the American shopper was, of course, the paper bag. But not until the mid-nineteenth century had ready-made paper bags come onto the market; an enterprising Englishman began to travel the English countryside peddling his handmade bags to grocers. In 1852 a primitive paper-bag-making machine was operating in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. By 1860 an ingenious mechanic, Charles Hill Morgan, had designed a machine for making bags which finally showed commercial possibilities and which he used in his paper-bag factory in Philadelphia. By the 1870’s Americans were in the business of selling bag-making machines.
American careers once again were to be made from commodities that had not even existed a half-century before. Luther Childs Crowell, the inventive son of a New England sea captain, was led somehow by his experiments with “aerial machines” (that never flew) to design a superior machine to make paper bags, for which he received a patent in 1867. A few years later he invented the square-bottomed paper bag (still used in the late twentieth century) and a machine for its manufacture. Following the pattern of other major innovations, his paper-bag patent was the subject of long and bitter litigation.
While paper bags were mostly for the customer’s convenience, the new large-scale merchandisers were looking for new ways to speed their sales. A salesman could be making a second sale in the time it took to wrap a parcel in paper and twine. To cover their high overhead and make a profit, department stores needed to make volume sales to the big-city crowds who were in a hurry. It is not surprising, then, that soon after the Civil War, New York bag makers were beginning to prosper by selling their product to Macy’s, Lord & Taylor, and other department stores. The bags themselves, when imprinted with the store’s name, became advertisements. In 1889 the economist David Ames Wells, an enthusiast for American efficiency and himself the inventor of a device for folding paper on power presses, observed quite seriously that the cheap paper bag had been the most effective innovation during the preceding decade in speeding up American retail sales, especially the sale of groceries. By Wells’s time, American factories each week were turning out millions of paper bags, which had begun to become standard equipment for the American retailer.
BUT EVEN the improved paper bag was not versatile enough for all the tasks of packaging required by the novel mass-produced products of American factories. There was a need, too, for boxes of all shapes and sizes. And these would have to be machine-made, easy to store, easy to ship, and sturdy in use.
In England the early box makers were more akin to luggage manufacturers than to packagers. They made boxes to sell empty, for any use the buyer wished. The boxes were made by hand, mostly from wood, heavy paper, or cardboard. Since there was no easy way to make clean creases or sharp corners, many boxes were made round or oval, hand-shaped around a wooden form. But these products could not satisfy modern factory needs, because the containers, when empty, consumed so much space. The most important packaging inventions in the nineteenth century, after the flat-bottomed paper bag, were to be a more compact kind of box and the machine for its manufacture. If a way could only be found of making a box that would remain flat until it was filled with the product, factories could buy boxes in large numbers and stack them in a small space until needed. But to make folding boxes inexpensively there had to be a machine that would cut and crease cardboard.
By mid-century a Boston firm which had been making jewelers’ boxes developed a machine that would crease and cut wood for boxes. The Dennisons had already been making “set-up” boxes, which the jeweler could unfold to display his merchandise on the counter or in a show window. But paper cartons were still made in the same laborious way, shaped one at a time by hand around wooden forms.
The crucial invention was made by Robert Gair, a clever Scotsman who had immigrated to New York City at the age of fourteen. After a tour in the Union Army, Gair set up a factory for paper bags, selling his product to department stores and other big-city shops. He enlisted in his firm the man who during the war had devised a sturdy paper bag for flour. Gair’s catalogue soon offered a variety of bags for flour and buckwheat, grocers’ bags, seed bags, and other bags imprinted with the merchant’s name. But in his factory, bags were still made by hand in the laborious old way.
Gair saw that if cardboard cartons could be made quickly and cheaply in a form easy to store and easy to use, they would vastly enlarge the market for packaging. Then, in April 1879, one of Gair’s workers who was tending a printing press for seed bags had carelessly allowed a metal rule on the press to slip up so that the paper was not only printed but actually cut. This gave Gair the clue that he needed. He designed a multiple die which used a sharp metal rule set high to cut the cardboard while it used blunt rules set lower to do the creasing. From this simple invention came the machine-made folding box. On a secondhand press which Gair bought for $30, he fitted the cutting and creasing rules; this paper-box machine could cut and crease 750 sheets an hour, each sheet providing ten carton blanks, amounting to an hourly production of 7,500 cartons.
Before the end of the nineteenth century there were nearly a thousand patents related to folding boxes and their machines. American machines to make cartons helped popularize the folding box in England. In 1898, Wills’ Three Castles cigarettes were being packed in machine-made folding cartons (three million a week) from a machine that was made in Philadelphia. Folding cartons, run off the presses by the millions, provided a versatile new form of packaging. By the second decade of the twentieth century these cartons were being made for candles, candy, oats, breakfast foods, cookies, and almost every other machine-made product. And the packagers had already begun to play a role in manufacturing and advertising. When someone from the National Biscuit Company in New York came to Robert Gair’s son and told him that they were planning a new, nationally advertised product, he said, “You need a name.” Uneeda Biscuits were the result. These words also spelled the end of the cracker barrel.
The rise of American packaging produced a host of packages of new and ingenious design. Until 1841 such collapsible packaging as there was had been made from animal bladders. Then an American artist patented a collapsible metal tube for artists’ colors, and in 1870 there appeared the first American tube-making machinery. By 1892 a Connecticut dentist was putting up toothpaste in tubes, and soon afterward, Colgate’s pioneered in the large-scale marketing of toothpaste in this form. By 1912 Mennen’s took the lead with tubes to market shaving cream, and this new convenience—the death of the shaving mug!—must have had something to do with the changing fashion of men’s faces in the following years. The very first Mennen shaving-cream tube showed a man with a clean-shaven chin.
Packages themselves became an important new commodity, and the packaging industry grew. Manufacturers designed closures specially adapted to powder, paste, or liquid, and they designed easy-dispensing caps, measuring caps, and containers in all shapes and sizes. These were accompanied by improvements in lithography, which reduced the cost of reproducing pictures on boxes and labels, and by new ways of printing on wood, glass, steel, tin, and aluminum. Cellophane, invented by a Swiss chemist in 1912, was developed and first manufactured by a French firm that had been making rayon, and then was commercially produced in the United States by DuPont in 1924.
The endless possibilities of packaging were symbolized in the mid-twentieth century by “aerosol.” This Americanism, made up from “aero” + “solution,” which appeared in dictionaries in the late 1960’s, described a push-button package. Although available before World War II, at first these packages were heavy and costly and were used mainly for insect repellents. It took a decade to perfect this can into a safe, inexpensive, light-weight device that properly combined the propellant which forced the product out of the pack, with the product itself. By 1955, about 240 million aerosols were produced annually for non-food purposes alone; by 1956 the figure was 320 million. The use of aerosols was spreading, and soon left an indelible public mark in the form of graffiti applied with aerosol paint cans. By the 1960’s, packaging in the United States, valued at more than $20 billion a year, had become a major American industry.
BUT PACKAGING WAS more than merely another industry. It pervaded American life and transformed the American’s experience of nearly all the objects which he bought or wanted to buy or thought he wanted. It brought one of the most manifold and least noticed revolutions in the common experience.
At first many of the consequences of packaging were of a familiar sort: cleanliness, convenience, and economy. As late as 1925 the American Sugar Refining Company was urging on its wholesale dealers the advantages of packaged, as against bulk, sugar:
Do you know that it takes a man about an hour and three-quarters to weigh out a 350-pound barrel of granulated sugar in five-pound paper bags; that a man averages only about 69 five-pound bags when he weighs out a 350-pound barrel; that the five pounds lost by spillage and down-weight represent 1.4 per cent of the cost price of the sugar; that, in addition to sugar wasted, bags, twine and labor amount to about forty cents added to the cost per cwt. of the sugar; and—that 350 pounds of Domino Package Sugars mean 350 pounds sold with a profit on every pound; that no time is lost and no material or sugar wasted; that, therefore, a retailer makes more money per pound when he sells Domino Package Sugars; and that he will appreciate your pointing out these facts to him, thereby enabling him to make more money on sugar….
Now, if the grocer must scoop his sugar, weigh it, wrap it, tie it, give downweight, lose some by spillage—then we acknowledge that the margin of profit is not worth the trouble. And that is why for years we have been urging the grocery trade to handle Domino Package Sugars. With this line you eliminate all handling costs, all expense, all losses. On that basis, 200 per cent profit is practically clear. Why not try it out?
But this was still a novel idea for the grocer. And in 1928 only 10 percent of household sugar was sold in package form.
Salt became a new, more profitable, item for the grocer. Before the age of packaging, salt was packed in cotton bags, retailing at from two to five cents each. The producer’s profit margin was so narrow that it actually depended on the fluctuation in the price of cotton. Since the cotton bag gave no more protection against moisture than an ordinary salt shaker, much of the contents of a bag of salt might be unusable in humid weather or by the time the housewife needed it. When producers began marketing salt in convenient square wax-wrapped cartons or in round cartons with aluminum spouts, they found that housewives were willing to pay three or four times the price for the same quantity. When the Morton Salt Company made “When it rains it pours” into a household phrase, they were really selling a new kind of package.
But packaging was not merely a new way for the more profitable retailing of old products. Packaging created new uses, and opened wider markets, with the result that products themselves were transformed. Before 1900, tea was sold in bulk by the grocer, and perfume was ladled out by the druggist for each customer from his large bottle into smaller, plain bottles. Within two decades the tea bag had made it possible to make tea where there was no teapot, and luxury packaging transformed perfume into a gift parcel and a bedroom ornament. Matches, which formerly were items for the kitchen or the fireplace, or which had to be carried about the person in a matchsafe, were now packaged into compact books of matches and became a new advertising medium. Ice cream, too, became a newly portable commodity when it was put up in an edible package, like the ice-cream cone (an Americanism first recorded in 1909) or the Eskimo Pie (an American trade name introduced in 1921).
The growth of American mass-merchandising, along with the rise of national advertising and national branding, offered new opportunities for the ubiquitous selling of small quantities of all sorts of things. Packaging opened a new market for candy. Early in the twentieth century candy had been sold only at confectioners’ and in few other stores, by the half-pound, pound, two-pound or five-pound box, or in bulk. It was messy and inconvenient to carry about just a few pieces. Then, in the 1920’s, small packages of candy began to be displayed in drugstores, cigar stores, newsstands, grocery stores, and scores of other even more unlikely places, tempting people to pick up a nickel “candy bar” (an American expression, first recorded in print in 1943) for their pocket or desk drawer. One result was that even while the number of confectionary stores in the United States declined quite steadily, from some 63,000 in 1929 to fewer than 14,000 forty years later, during these years the opportunities for buying and consuming candy were becoming more widespread than ever. “Hershey,” “Baby Ruth,” “Oh Henry!,” and “Mars” became colloquial expressions for units of candy—the products of small-unit packaging. The same story could be told of the spreading consumption of potato chips, nuts, and scores of other foods, newly distributed in small packages.
Some things could not have had a wide market at all without speedier, more attractive and more functional packaging. When two young businessmen bought the Mint Products company that produced Life Savers, the little round mints with the hole were packed in sturdy cardboard cartons that were held together by paste. After a few weeks on the dealer’s shelf these Life Savers would lose their mint flavor and they absorbed the flavor of the paste. The new management at Life Savers discarded the old boxes and instead used tin foil, which did not absorb the flavor, which was easily sealed again after one mint was removed, and which looked attractive on the counter. Cigarettes and chewing gum too could hardly have found their universal market without machine-made packages. By the mid-1920’s a single automatic wrapping machine could turn out 50 cigarette packages a minute. A single chewing-gum packaging machine wrapped gum in foil at the rate of 400 sticks a minute, 200 boxes (twenty packages per box) each hour, or 1,800 packages a day.
The new packaging machinery helped modify retailing in still another way, by providing contents to fill the newly perfected vending machines. Before the mid-twentieth century, in American everyday parlance the word “vendor” no longer meant a person who sold but “a machine that dispenses goods upon the deposit of a coin or coins.” These new ways of merchandising gave a new importance to packaging and made new demands of the package. Packaging became an art of selling-without-salesmen. And after the rise of advertising itself, nothing did more to contribute to the decline of salesmanship than the improved technology of packaging.
By the 1950’s, “packaging engineering” had become a new American occupation: larger firms had their own specialized staffs and smaller firms consulted packaging engineers. By the late 1960’s, consumer products accounted for 70 percent of all packaging materials. Without anyone having intended it, and when few even noticed, everyone had become increasingly dependent on packaging. Businessmen could well say, “No packaging, no brands—no brands, no business.”
THE PACKAGING REVOLUTION, like other transformations of American experience, came rapidly—within a third of a century. As late as 1920, few of the housewife’s purchases were packaged. Of common household groceries, packaged goods then included only a small proportion of sugar, salt, rice, flour, tea, or coffee. The unpackaged products were seldom sold under brand names. But the growth of national advertising and national brands (which had been both a cause and an effect of department stores, five-and-tens, chain stores, and the earliest self-service stores) produced still another new American institution: the supermarket. Dictionaries defined this new Americanism as “a large retail market that sells food and other household goods and that is usually operated on a self-service, cash-and-carry basis.” But by mid-century, merchandising specialists were defining a supermarket as a store that did at least $1 million of business annually.
While the self-service grocery store, as we have seen, had been pioneered before World War I by Piggly Wiggly and others, the supermarket became increasingly important only after World War II. Giving a smaller role than ever to the salesman, it was preeminently a place of self-service. The widening spectacle of competing items and competing brands displayed to the customer on open shelves gave the package a newly seductive power.
During World War I, when labor was scarce, the large grocery markets had turned to self-service, and the customer was provided a basket to carry the purchases he selected off the shelves. One of the first supermarkets, San Francisco’s Crystal Palace, opened in 1923 in a large steel-frame building on the site of a former baseball diamond and circus ground with 68,000 square feet of selling area and parking for 4,350 cars (one hour free). Offering food, drugs, tobacco, liquor (after 1934), jewelry, a barber shop, a beauty parlor, and a cleaning establishment, the store by 1937 had set sales records of 51,000 pounds of sugar in one hour, 5 carloads of eggs in a month; in a single year it sold 200 tons of lemons, 250 tons of oranges, and 300 tons of apples. By this time other supermarkets were beginning to show comparable sales.
An important accessory of the supermarket, which increased sales by making it easier for the customer to give in to his purchasing temptations, was the shopping cart. An employee of a Houston grocery store in the early 1920’s removed the handle from a toy express wagon, fastened a shopping basket on the wagon, and then made the front wheels stationary so that the customer could guide the cart by the basket handle. By the later 1930’s, similar carts were being manufactured for sale to grocery-store owners. In the 1950’s, shopping carts came into use in self-service hardware stores, appliance stores, and discount department stores.
Department stores and supermarkets brought together many kinds of merchandise under one roof. During World War II the scarcity of certain goods had increased this tendency toward “scrambled” merchandising. When drugstores could not get some of their usual items, they stocked small appliances, food, luggage, and toys, while supermarkets carried clothing, kitchenware, hardware, drugs, and cosmetics, and department stores branched out into food, liquor and a variety of new services. The parking problem, more acute every year, made customers eager for “one-stop” or “one-parking” shopping.
While the differences between one kind of shop and another were dissolved, so too were the distinctions between shopping and non-shopping hours. As early as 1931, a Long Island supermarket was advertising, “Come in your Lincoln, Come in your Ford, Come with the Baby Carriage. Come with any old thing but come, come, come! Fri. 9 P.M., Sat. 10 P.M.” Supermarkets, and then self-service hardware and department stores, and discount stores began to stay open nightly, including Sundays.
The increasing size of the stores, the increasing number of items, the increasing competition for the buyer’s attention by items arrayed so the buyer could reach them for himself, made packaging into a newly sophisticated and self-conscious industry. The salesman was nowhere to be seen. The housewife-customer, equipped with a shopping cart, wandered without guidance and often without clear purpose through a wilderness of packages. Not unless she had trouble finding some particular item did she get advice or assistance (except from a fellow customer) until she reached the check-out counter. She had to make decisions for herself, based on her preferences for certain brands or on the appearance and appeal of the packages on the shelf. Once again, the American lived the public-private paradox. The flood of goods into these enormous channels of merchandising pushed the citizen-consumer back on himself. The decision to buy or not to buy had become more private than ever before.
The overwhelming new power of packaging, then, came from self-service. In 1928 the pioneer book, Packages That Sell, by Richard B. Franken and Carroll B. Larrabee, foreshadowed the new emphasis. “The package,” they said, “should be merchandised … in the same way that the product is merchandised.” This was the final stage in the attenuation of things. For while every object had a different purpose—to brush teeth, to comb hair, to please the palate, or whatever else—all packaging shared one purpose, namely to sell. Whatever the content of the package, whatever its other purposes, every package was shaped somehow toward that same end. And the new merchandising tended to put every package in competition with every other.
However well any package might protect or preserve its content, it failed if it did not sell. Therefore the important, the substantial and essential qualities of a package were the qualities that forced the reluctant or indifferent buyer to buy. From this new point of view, color, size, shape, material, and function had but one test for all packages: What impression did the package make on the prospective customer?
The important size of a package, for example, was its apparent size. Using the so-called Order-of-Merit Method, which an American psychologist, James McKeen Cattell, had used in 1902 to measure the relative brightness of two hundred shades of gray, Franken and Larrabee proposed a way to “obtain a quantitative measurement of a qualitative or subjective thing. In packaging this method will tell us beforehand which of a series of packages will help stimulate the sale of the product to the greatest extent, and will thus enable us to formulate principles upon which to build the future packages.” As an illustration they showed, from the results of tests of consumer preference, why a certain shape of 10-ounce can was the best package for codfish cakes. “The apparent size of objects,” they explained, “depends somewhat on their shape…. the flat 10-ounce can … was selected for Gorton-Pew’s Ready-to-Fry Codfish Cakes because it looked larger than the tall can … although both cans had the same cubic capacity.”
NOW THE PACKAGE—as well as, or instead of, the product—was what was advertised. From a sampling study of large-circulation general magazines, Franken and Larrabee observed that while in 1900 only 7 percent of the advertisements of packaged products showed a picture of the package, by 1925 the proportion had reached 35 percent and was going up. “The primary function of advertising is to create a desire in the consumer’s mind to buy a product. This desire, once created, must be carried to the point of sale…. Best of all … is to picture the package in the advertisement. Even if only a favorable impression has been created, without the desire to buy, the sight of the actual package may turn this impression into active desire on the part of the consumer.” In stores, then, it was more important to display the distinctive brand-named carton than the usable object itself. The “dummy carton” began to play a leading role in store windows and on counters.
The supermarket offered new opportunities for “impulse buying”; and impulse buying was essentially the buying of packages. With the rise in the American Standard of Living, the increase of disposable income, and the multiplication of novel objects, more and more people went to the supermarket hoping to be seduced into buying something they “really wanted.” In England and elsewhere in the Old World, it was still true in the late twentieth century that middle-class shoppers went to market to buy what they wanted, while Americans went increasingly to see what they wanted.
A series of studies by the DuPont Company, begun in 1949, showed that “impulse buying” was on the increase. As a large producer of packaging materials, the DuPont Company, of course, had a special interest in proving the growing importance of impulse buying, and so of packaging. But their conclusions were widely substantiated. By 1959 more than half the housewife’s purchases in a supermarket were “unplanned”—that is, they were purchases that she had not intended to make before she entered the store; and less than a third of her purchases had been specifically planned before coming to the store. In the five years from 1954 to 1959, the DuPont study showed, the number of supermarkets in the United States had increased by nearly 40 percent (to some 30,000 stores), and the number of different items stocked in supermarkets had increased nearly 30 percent (to an average of 6,000 items and a high of 8,000 items in larger supermarkets). “The shopper is depending on the supermarket for more and more items she needs … she is spending 50% more time in the supermarket (27 minutes per trip against 18 minutes five years ago) and has increased the number of items purchased…. the supermarket has become her ‘shopping center’ rather than just a food store.”
What did it mean, then, to speak of the “demand” for products when so large a proportion of what consumers bought was determined by the appeal of the packages? What was the meaning of “desire” when the housewife in the supermarket averaged fourteen (13.7) buying-decisions in twenty-seven minutes? Packaging, which at the end of the nineteenth century was still only a means to protect a product, had become a thing-in-itself. Now where did the package end and the product begin? Who could say?
Shrewd manufacturers and merchandisers could not fail to become adept at what Dr. Ernest Dichter, a psychoanalytic marketing consultant, called “the Strategy of Desire.” A good product was not enough; success required a package that would stimulate desire. From one point of view, as Dr. Dichter explained in 1961, this was a result of the uniform and high quality of American products.
When people buy soap, they know that they are going to get soap. They know they do not any more have to worry about getting a piece of chalk. But because our technological development has been so good and so fast, the fact is that almost all our products are uniformly good, so that there is in reality very little difference, in the same price category, between a product with one brand name and a product with another. What people actually spend their money on are the psychological differences, brand images permitting them to express their individuality…. We have reached … a psychoeconomic era. It is because of the improved quality and reliability of our merchandise that we can allow ourselves the luxury of making our decisions on the basis of more purely psychological factors.
To say that products were more and more standardized was to say that the consumer’s world, like the world of the photograph and the phonograph, had also become a world of repeatable experience. Packaging and brand-naming had helped make the experience more reliably repeatable. The packaging of convenience foods, as a study by Arthur D. Little & Co. argued, plays “an important role in reducing the risks of non-repeatability in the preparation of food products. The ability of a housewife to repeat the quality of a given meal is increased.” The familiar package justified the hope that it would be the same this time, too.
While the American consumer now had an unprecedented guarantee that the experience of a particular product was repeatable, other aspects of his experience were overcast by new penumbras. The package or the object? Form or content? Did he really want it, or had he been persuaded to buy it on impulse? Would he have bought it if it had been offered to him in a package of different size, shape, or color, or if it had been displayed on a different shelf or beside something else more attractive? Or if he had not had his shopping cart so handy? The anonymous product—the product without a brand name, which had dominated the stores a half-century before—had by the mid-twentieth century become slightly disreputable. Everything had a name, and packages were commonly bought because the name on the package had become familiar in print or on the television screen. Inevitably, then, the packaged world with its new strategy of desire brought a vagueness and uncertainty of desire. Had packaging, like clothing, become a badge of man’s lost innocence?