A Taste of Asia, Wrapped in America: The Story Behind Chinese Takeout Boxes

We all know that China has taken the West by storm with their innovations and cuisines. However, there is another nuance that is quite popular in America like Western homelands. These are Chinese takeout containers. You can literally find these boxers in the whole of the country, especially in Chinatowns. 
A quick fact: Unlike the name sounds, these boxes were not created in China. They were originally made in the USA. The question is what happened that associated them with China? In this quick guide, let’s deep dive into their design and history. We will also soak in their cultural significance and impact on America’s dining habits. Lastly, there will be a quick overview of the future insights of these boxes. Let’s quickly learn in this 5-minute simple yet comprehensive guide.

Design and Practicality of Chinese Takeout Containers

Design: If you look at the Chinese takeout boxes, they come in square or rectangular-shaped boxes with sharp edges. They are made of white cardboard that is folded to give them a distinctive shape and design. The upper edges have protruded sides that can be folded to make a structure similar to closing lids. 
The sides feature a wire frame handle that makes it easy to carry these boxes. Almost all Chinese boxes are made of white paper that is crafted with Chinese letters in red, which often means - Thank you or Enjoy your food.

Practicality: There are various sizes of Chinese takeout boxes, mentioned below:

  • 4 oz. boxes are suitable for items like sushi rolls or fried wontons.
  • 8 oz. boxes work well for moderate portions of rice and noodles.

Their base is straight and the edges are made in a way that they can easily be converted into a plate form for easy dining (All you have to do is remove the steel wire). The fold-top design has interlocking mechanisms that will secure the food and keep it warm. The Interior has no inserts. However, they are often glued or waxed to make them leak-resistant.

Overall, if you look at these boxes, they fulfil 4 user intents:

  • They are easy to carry;
  • They keep the food warm and secure;
  • They can be folded on a plate for easy eating;
  • They can be folded to converse space during transit.

History of Chinese Takeout Containers

Before conferring the cultural value of Chinese boxes, let’s have a look at their timeline and explore their origin as well as evolution over time:
Origin: Unlike Americans think, Chinese takeout boxes were made in the USA. The credit goes to a Chicago-based inventor, named Frederick Weeks Wilcox. In 1894, he filed a patent for a unique box, based on the following muses:

  • Oyster pail boxes;
  • Rules of Japanese origami (paper folding technique);

Flashpoint: A quick fact that needs to be added here is that boxes similar to Chinese takeout vessels were already there in the USA before 1894. These were called ‘Oyster Pail Boxes’ and were used to carry oysters. Due to their strong body and uni-design, they can even handle liquid sipping.

Evolution of Wilcox’s Box

How these boxes became common: Although Wilcox’s box was not inspired by China’s culture, Chinese people, themselves, have a huge role in its spread. Chinese migration to the USA started in 1849 after the California Gold Rush. They presented their local foods in the country.

A century later, following World War II, American’s taste for Chinese cuisine further expanded due to the suburbanization of native Chinese. Spring rolls, noodles, chop suey, egg foo young, and other dishes became common. These foods have high thermal activity and often contain liquid, needing a transit means that is leak-free and can keep the food warm. This is where Wilcox’s boxes came in handy.

What made them Chinese: In the 1970s, a designer at Fold-Pak (a top producer of these paper cartons) gave a Chinese touch to these boxes. He added words like “Thank you/Enjoy” in the native calligraphy style and a pagoda symbol.

After the boom in Chinatowns in the USA and heavily used for Chinese food deliveries, these American boxes became associated with China. Susan Spencer, a famous journalist satirically refers to these boxes:

"So we have American food, basically, in an American box, and we all think that we're going around being ethnic?"

Cultural Value in America

You know a Chinese takeout box is a clear sight when Peter Kim, executive director of New York's Museum of Food and Drink praises it. He says and I quote: “You see it (Chinese takeout boxes), and you know exactly what it means.” But what is the thing that has affected this American standard bearer?

Let’s see these things that have shown their cultural weight in America:

  • Iconic Symbol: These boxes have been linked to American Chinese cuisines. Their certain design is folded and has a top that seems like a pagoda with a wire handle, which promptly makes one hungry and thinking about the meals. These boxes cannot be referred to as mere jars to hold something but are vessels of culture and history.
  • Practicality: In packing, the boxes are more than just artistic, their utility is also impressive. When unfolded they make a flat plane - a sort of table - ideal if you are eating with others. In fact in picnics, office lunches and even in family functions the box when expanded is easily used as a serving tray.
  • Cultural Fusion: These boxes act as a cultural shift and show a fusion between various values. It combines arcs of Chinese and Japanese origami and American ease of use. This merge is stressed by the pagoda symbol, which is added with stylised ‘thank you’ and the colour red which in Chinese culture means good luck. 
  • Nostalgia and Pop Culture: These boxes are ways for many people to flashback to the past. For example, late-night sessions coupled with lo mein or family dinners with chopsticks. Further, they also have been featured in many Hollywood movies such as “Rush Hour” or shows like “Friends”. In short, their use has streamlined themselves into the mainstream cultural lexicon.
  • Environmental Impact: Even though not all of them are recyclable because of the wax cover, Chinese boxes have proven rather inventive. Some people cut them to use as baskets or as picture frames, while others give them as gifts for different events. This is well traced to the rising awareness that calls for the recycling of various items.

Impact on American’s Dining Habits

Over the past few years, Chinese takeout boxes have affected American’s dining habits. Particularly, after the increase in the takeout culture, their use has increased. As per stats, there are 40,000 Chinese restaurants in the U.S., 3 times more than McDonald's. Most of these hotels serve takeout delivery in Chinese takeout boxes. 
Since the frequency of takeout and dine-out has increased greatly in the USA, the consumption of these boxes has also become higher. An average citizen orders a delivery 4.5 times per month. In fact, 57% of Americans rely on takeout rather than dining at home.

A minor yet crucial aspect is that Chinese takeout boxes have promoted overeating. A large size and abundance can contribute to overeating.

Future Trends

With the rise in tech, brands are opting the ways that save their resources and bring more value. The following are some options that a company can use in their Chinese takeout boxes for more consumer engagement:

  • Smart packing: Chinese food is delicate. Having said that, you must consume it in the hot form to get the best experience. Incorporating heat sensors to maintain the temperature. Moreover, the use of interactive tech such as QR codes or NFC can provide the user about the food or other relevant information. 
  • Increased functionality: To promote portion control or variable serving, you can introduce compartments or inserts. Furthermore, using materials like Polypropylene and C-PET can make it easy to heat the package contents in the oven without taking them out. 
  • Sustainability: Consumers love a product or a box that considers the environment in the production. Materials that are made of paper, straw, or mushrooms are eco-friendly. Further, you can use ready-made materials such as Kraft, Corrugated, Green Cell foam, or Cornstarch that are helpful in giving your product a green touch.


Chinese takeout boxes are jars that are unique with good usability and industry uses. These are basically American boxes, made by Frederick Weeks Wilcox in 1894. However, the use of Chinese letters and pagoda symbols has tied them with China.

Today, they are being used on a large scale in the USA, bearing on many people daily. Now, these boxes are a means of connecting different cultures and offer a hint of nostalgia.

If you are interested in using these boxes in your production line-up, Packaging Mania can lend you a hand. With their experts, they offer a meticulous design with free consulting and delivery. Further, they provide competitive rates as well as free custom quotes.

27 June 2024

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