The history of to-go container art

Over the last two years, it seems as though I have eaten more takeout orders than I did in all pre-COVID years combined. So many of us were eating to-go orders that restaurants ran out of containers and had to scramble to find something in which to put their food. One Mexican restaurant near me went through four different types of containers in about a month. Now that supply chains have recovered, restaurants are returning to their branded takeaway containers. Have you ever wondered where the illustrations that adorn those Chinese takeout containers and pizza boxes comes from? Wonder no more. Gastro Obscura’s Anne Ewbank digs deep into the history of to-go container art.

The winking chef found on millions of pizza boxes was the first thing that Ewbank tracked down. The likely inventor of this artwork is American cartoonist Gill Fox, who was twice nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. According to Ewbank’s research, “Fox is said to have drawn the chef in the early 1950s, copying the style of a co-worker and selling it to a clip-art serviceĀ as a joke.” Whether intended as a joke or not, some version of this winking chef – either holding a slice of pizza or making the OK sign – adorns pizza boxes across the United States. One local independent pizzeria near me features a similar illustration with the chef giving the pizza a thumbs-up.

Ewbank also dives into the history of the pagoda image found on Chinese takeaway boxes and the often elaborate artwork that graces sushi trays. While these pieces of container art cannot be traced to a specific illustrator, there are interesting tidbits about their origins that have been discovered. Some folks are so enamored with vintage takeout designs that a brisk market in these containers has emerged.

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