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Today, plastic packaging has a bad (w)rap. But the first commercially viable version of the now ubiquitous material – cellophane – was conceived in a more innocent age, before anyone worried about plastic in landfill, or the sea, or the food chain.

Beginnings

It begins in 1904, at an upmarket restaurant in Vosges, France, when an elderly patron spilled red wine over a pristine linen tablecloth.

Sitting at a nearby table was a Swiss chemist called Jacques Brandenberger, who worked for a French textile company. As he watched the waiter change the tablecloth, he wondered about designing a fabric that would simply wipe clean.

He tried spraying cellulose on tablecloths but it peeled off in transparent sheets. But might those transparent sheets have a market?

A History Lesson

By World War One, he’d found one: eye-pieces for gas masks. He called his invention “cellophane” and in 1923 he sold the rights to the DuPont corporation in America. Its early uses there included wrapping chocolates, perfume and flowers.

But DuPont had a problem. Some customers weren’t happy. They’d been told cellophane was waterproof, and it was, but it wasn’t moisture-proof. Candies stuck to it; knives rusted in it; cigars dried out. DuPont hired a 27-year-old chemist, William Hale Charch, and tasked him with finding a solution.

Within a year, he’d done it – the cellophane was coated with extremely thin layers of nitrocellulose, wax, a plasticiser and a blending agent. Sales took off. The timing was perfect. In the 1930s, supermarkets were changing – customers no longer queued to tell shop assistants what food they required. They picked products off the shelves instead. See-through packaging was a hit. And, as Harvard Business School researcher Ai Hisano points out, had “a significant impact not only on how consumers purchased foods but also on how they understood food quality”.

Cellophane let them choose food on the basis of how it looked, without sacrificing hygiene or freshness. One study – admittedly funded by DuPont – found that wrapping crackers in cellophane boosted sales by more than half. And retailers had no shortage of similar advice. “She buys meat with her eyes,” said a 1938 edition of The Progressive Grocer. In fact, the meat counter was the hardest to make self-service. The problem was that meat, once cut, would quickly discolour. But trials suggested a self-service meat counter could sell 30% more food. With such an incentive, solutions were found: pink-tinted lighting, antioxidant additives and – of course – an improved version of cellophane, which let through just the right amount of oxygen.

The Golden Age of Transparent Cellophane

By 1949, DuPont adverts boasted about the “pleasing new way” to buy meat – “pre-cut, weighed, priced and wrapped in cellophane right in the store”. But cellophane would soon fall out of fashion, overtaken by the likes of Dow Chemical’s polyvinylidene chloride. Like its predecessor, this was an accidental discovery first used in conflict – in this case, weatherproofing fighter planes in World War Two. And, like cellophane, it needed plenty of research and development before it could be used on food – it was originally dark green and smelled disgusting.

Once Dow sorted that out, it hit the market as Saran Wrap – now more widely known as cling film.

How Packaging Affects the Modern Economy

Subheadline 1
By World War One, he’d found one: eye-pieces for gas masks. He called his invention “cellophane” and in 1923 he sold the rights to the DuPont corporation in America. Its early uses there included wrapping chocolates, perfume and flowers.

Subheadline 2
Once Dow sorted that out, it hit the market as Saran Wrap – now more widely known as cling film.

Subheadline 3
Once Dow sorted that out, it hit the market as Saran Wrap – now more widely known as cling film.

A Look Into the Future

Cellophane let them choose food on the basis of how it looked, without sacrificing hygiene or freshness. One study – admittedly funded by DuPont – found that wrapping crackers in cellophane boosted sales by more than half. And retailers had no shortage of similar advice. “She buys meat with her eyes,” said a 1938 edition of The Progressive Grocer. In fact, the meat counter was the hardest to make self-service. The problem was that meat, once cut, would quickly discolour. But trials suggested a self-service meat counter could sell 30% more food. With such an incentive, solutions were found: pink-tinted lighting, antioxidant additives and – of course – an improved version of cellophane, which let through just the right amount of oxygen.

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