What’s with the box?

The take-out box is much more than just a symbol for Chinese food in the US today, it is a symbol of perseverance and entrepreneurship, with deep roots in San Francisco.

In the mid 19th century, Chinese men fleeing extreme poverty and political turmoil fled southeast China with dreams of striking gold in the American west. This wave of immigrants, made up mostly of men from the Canton region, created the Chinese food Americans love and eat today (Lui). This love, however, was not at first sight.

San Francisco is home to the first documented Chinese restaurant in the US – the Canton Restaurant – which opened in 1849 (Lui). And while there are over 1,000 Chinese restaurants in or around San Francisco today (Yelp), at the ratification of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 there were only 14 (Lui). The wave of extreme anti-Chinese sentiment that swept across the US inhibited the growth of Chinese owned businesses, which were seldom seen outside of a city’s Chinatown (Rude). It was not until the 20th century that Chinese food wedged its way into the minds and bellies of Americans.

American Chinese food has deep roots in San Francisco, where the first documented Chinese restaurant opened

By the middle of the 20th century, Chinese food became an indispensable part of American food culture. The changing social tides – such as rapid urbanization, proliferation of office jobs, solidification of the middle class, etc. – created a need for quick and inexpensive food. Chop suey was the answer. By the second half of the 20th century Chinese food was canned and and sold to millions of Americans in major grocery stores across the US (Lui).

What Chinese immigrants and Chinese Americans did for themselves, and the US, embodies the ethos of the American Dream. As Lui discusses, “Chop suey houses should be understood as a pioneer fast-food business in the America restaurant market. They were not big, corporate chains. Most chop suey houses were individually owned small businesses” (Lui). Despite having the odds stacked against them, Chinese immigrant and Chinese American restaurant owners changed American culture.

So what about the take-out box? In 1894 American inventor Frederick Weeks Wilcox patented the paper pail with the objective of improving the oyster pail technology of the time (Greenbaum and Rubenstein). Not only the preferred vessel for street food, the paper pail was the ideal container for take-out when Americans’ dining habits drastically changed during the 20th century. As take-out and delivery became mainstream in the middle of the 20th century, Chinese restaurants led the industry by being the first establishments to offer delivery services (Rude).

In the US today there are more Chinese restaurants than any other type of establishment – with more restaurants than McDonald’s, KFCs, and Pizza Huts combined (Rude). The take-out box is as iconic as the Happy Meal box, with a much more complex history. So the next time you’re eating the deliciousness from your favorite Chinese restaurant, consider how far it has come and changed since it’s humble beginnings in San Francisco.

Jorge Hernandez

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