Think inside the box
May 30th, 2022
Billions of pizzas are sold every year in the United States. That means tons of cheese
spreading into virtually every household in the country. These delicious pies have traveled all
the way from Italy to establish themselves as an undisputed comfort food for many
americans. A wonderful combination of carbohydrates work synesthetically to stimulate
multiple parts of our body, providing an integrated feeling of satisfaction.
Opening a pizza box is similar to disclosing an engagement ring or a pearl inside a shell. Of
course, our whole attention goes to that beautiful, shiny circle, and we immediately dispose
of the container. In this article, we want to veer our focus towards these pieces of folded
cardboard. They do deserve some praise after performing the great duty of bringing our
favorite dish safely to our dinner table.
Pizza delivery was different in the early stages of the history of pizza. Back in Naples, the first
pizza makers had to carry around things called stufe (which translates from italian to
‘ovens’), searching for people who might be interested in purchasing their pre-made pies.
These were round, multi-layered containers made out of tin or copper. The metal retained
the heat to keep the pizzas hot, and it had vents to release the steam, but they were limited in
the amount of pies they could hold.
Takeout was also different. Early pizza bakers would display their cheesy pies in cardboard
plates or bases that they would slide into a thin paper bag when anybody bought a slice.
These bags were lined with wax to maintain their structure against the moisture of the pizza.
They were good at releasing steam but bad at retaining heat. This method is still used in a
few old school pizza joints across the US, but it’s not ideal for transporting whole pizzas or
multiple orders, as they cannot be stacked.
After the Second World War, pizza gained popularity. The first dedicated disposable pizza
boxes appeared in the 50s, and were easier to stack and store than paper bags. These thin
paperboard boxes were good for pizzas that were sold at room temperature to be heated at
home, but they couldn’t effectively transport hot pizzas as the heat and moisture would make
them fall apart.
Pizza makers started to wonder how they could carry their hot, moist and crispy pies from
their ovens to their consumers without losing their original out-of-the-oven quality. They
knew they had to come up with something resistant, cheap, thermally insulated, aerated and
stackable. Ventilation was crucial to release steam so that the pizza wouldn’t get soggy, while
allowing air to flow to avoid food contamination. As a result, someone came up with the
pizza box as we know it.
In 1963, the first corrugated cardboard box was patented. It was built with a special kind of
layered fiberboard that allowed for aeration, insulation and stacking. They were shaped as
squares so that only one single sheet of containerboard was needed, making it more cost
effective. Plus, they were easily foldable without using adhesives that could leach into the
pizza. Besides, square boxes are easy to assemble, store and stack.
The next advancement in the pizza vehicle was the pizza saver. This little three-legged table
made out of FDA-grade plastic was placed in the middle of the pie to prevent the top of the
box from collapsing in at the center. It was first patented in Argentina in 1974 under the
name of separador de pizza (which translates from spanish to ‘pizza separator’) or sepi, but
the patent was never renewed. In 1985, a similar product called package saver was patented
in the US by Carmela Vitale. It was soon renamed as pizza cover, as it was initially designed
to protect any kind of food but then was mostly used with pizza.
Not much attention was paid to the further development of the pizza box. The two most
popular styles back then prevail today. These are the Walker style, known for their double
paneled front walls, and the Michigan style, with a base that folds over itself and locks.
Chicago-style deep dish pizzas have their own type of boxes with walls that collapse as the lid
opens, to make serving easier. For more information, there’s an entire book, written by pizza
expert Scott Wiener who holds a record for the largest collection of pizza boxes.
We might take pizza boxes for granted but they are very reliable and efficient transportation
modules. There have been a few attempts to make these boxes rounded, one of them
designed by Apple and used by their employees. With the environmental crisis, the current
major concern is to build them with sustainable materials. For example, there are prototypes
of reusable boxes made of recyclable plastic that can be hand washed or even dropped into
the dishwasher. There are also models made out of plant-based, compostable materials, and
some odd edible pizza boxes, but the latter are just a marketing novelty.