Wrap Session


The Evolution and Secret Meanings of Boxes, Bottles, Cans, and Tubes

By Thomas Hine

Little, Brown 289pp $24.95

Anyone who has ever pushed a cart through a supermarket knows that packaging is more than just paper and cardboard. Every stroll through the aisles subjects us to the screaming messages of 30,000 bagged, boxed, canned, and frozen bundles. Candy wrappers, fast-food containers, soda cans--packages are so ubiquitous that most of them fail to register in our consciousness.

But that doesn't mean containers go completely unnoticed. In The Tmtal Package, Thomas Hine tackles the more subtle roles that packages play, from substitute sales clerk to subliminal emotional trigger.

Hine, a design critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer, starts with the earliest packages of antiquity--the clay vessels that allowed traders to tell an amphora of oil from an amphora of wine. Today, Hine points out, rather than packages arising as a means to distinguish products, we have products arising as a way to fulfill the promise of a successful package.

But the heart of Hine's book traces the rise of the mass-market, consumer-goods package, and it's here that he is at his best. At the start of the century, everything from sugar to soap was bought and sold as a commodity. Then, the arrival of packages, with their promise of predictability and quality, allowed the emergence of national brands. And instead of asking a grocer to measure out five pounds of flour, buyers helped themselves to premeasured bags. Ninety years later, packages have almost eliminated the grocer gr sales clerk from the store. Labels bearing instructions, recipes, and product specifications do the job now.

By bypassing the retailer, packages allow the manufacturer to speak directly to the customer. In a sixth of a second, they communicate volumes about price, value, quality--even class aspirations.

Hine does a good job of showing the transformation of packages from mere containers to sophisticated communication devices, though he falters when he gets a little further afield--for example, trying to relate the fall of communism to poor packaging. In an age in which everything from the food we eat to the political candidates who would lead us come prepackaged, it's important to think occasionally about the wrapping that veils the substance.

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