We take the packaging our food comes in for granted. Yet many of the boxes, bags and bottles that protect our edibles were once groundbreaking — both in their design and in how they changed our perception of what's inside. Sometimes, packaging is so distinctive, it transforms food from mere consumer product to cultural icon. As Stephen Heller, author of more than 100 books on design and popular culture, says, "Coca-Cola is not a bottle of soda — it's Coca-Cola."
Here, we've curated a list of some of the best examples of food packaging design over the past century, with help from experts in the field.
Tootsie Roll (1960s)
It's hard to imagine any other sweet treat residing inside the Tootsie Roll wrapper. Though the candy itself is often overlooked these days, its wrapping is iconic — from its colors to its recognizable font, Cooper Black. "It's a chewy, dark font that perfectly reflects the Tootsie Roll candy," says Ellen Lupton, senior curator at the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum.
Coca-Cola Glass Bottle (1915)
The Coca-Cola Co. commissioned this contoured bottle to distinguish its drink from those of competitors angling for a piece of the cola business. Long before Coca-Cola was associated with the color red, the clear glass bottle was etched with the brand's name in the scripted font the company has used for a full century. This year marks the 100th anniversary of that design, which remains instantly recognizable. When asked to define the principles of good design, Andrea Lipps, assistant curator at Cooper-Hewitt, listed memorability, legibility and noticeability. Those three qualities certainly describe this product — ubiquitous not just on grocery shelves but in pop culture, gracing everything from Andy Warhol's art to Elvis Presley's lips.
"They changed the way chips were looked upon," says Heller, co-chair of the master in fine arts design program at the School of Visual Arts in New York. The Pringles can (and the saddle-shaped chips inside) were invented as a way to solve the problem of broken chips that wind up in the bottom of every bag. The ease of grabbing your next Pringle from the can puts the focus on the food and eating experience, rather than on the hunt for a chip that's still in one piece.
Jiffy Pop (1959)
After scaling up production of aluminum during World War II, manufacturers struggled to find uses for it — especially in food. But Jiffy Pop and other consumer products soon made aluminum a familiar part of the home. Predating the countertop microwave by about a decade, Jiffy Pop was the first product to act as both a container and tool for cooking popcorn. You could place the heavy aluminum right on top of the stove and pop away. "You're part of the magic of watching this package transform for you," says Matthew Bird, an industrial designer and assistant professor at the Rhode Island School of Design. He adds: "Transformation through use is a powerful piece of psychology, and it's very hard to use intentionally in packaging."
Jif Lemon Juice (1954)
One of the first items to introduce plastic into the food aisles came in the form of a lemon. Though citrus might seem like an odd way to ring in the exciting new world of plastics, the high acidity of the juice meant that, before then, buyers could only get it in glass bottles. "It's so engaging because it's the wrong material — it looks like a lemon but it's plastic," says Bird. The distinctive mold was created by carving out the shape, then imprinting a fresh lemon peel on top to give it a more natural texture.
Morton Salt (1914)
Though the Morton Salt container celebrated its centennial last year, it still deserves a place on this list for its iconic illustration of a girl with an umbrella. "Brands today can't touch this kind of magic," Lupton says. "It married a memorable, almost philosophically dense advertising slogan with a beautiful, functional package."
The image also reflects the product's slogan, "When it rains it pours." In fact, the union of advertising and packaging is so effective that, in popular speech, the expression crafted by Morton's ad men has all but replaced the proverb it was modeled after: "It never rains but it pours."
"It has stood the test of time as far as design that so supremely performs its function," says Lipps of the soy sauce bottle designed by the late Kenji Ekuan. The clear glass allows you to see exactly how much is left inside, while the red, dripless spout is both functional and adds a splash of color. The design also complements the way we use soy sauce — letting the liquid out in small quantities to avoid accidentally drenching our food. It's considered such an icon of form and function that the Kikkoman bottle is part of the Museum of Modern Art's collection.