Cellophane, the New Visuality, and the Creation of Self-Service Food Retailing

by Ai Hisano

Overview — Offering a visual perception of freshness, the expansion of cellophane packaging material dramatically altered how consumers understood food quality. This paper examines the importance of cellophane as “scientific” and “modern” in the early to mid-20th-century United States. It shows how business strategies helped shape, and were shaped by, cultural narratives about cellophane.

Author Abstract

This working paper examines how innovations in transparent packaging, specifically cellophane in the mid-twentieth century United States, helped retailers create full self-service merchandising systems, including selling perishable food. While self-service stores began appearing in the late 1910s, self-service was initially applied only to grocery and dry goods, such as canned foods and boxed breakfast cereals. It was not until after World War II that the majority of American grocers adopted self-service to meat and produce sections. Business historians have explored the development of this self-service merchandising from the perspectives of marketing strategies, store operations, and relationships between customers and store clerks. However, the significance of the development of cellophane as a new packaging material, and the role of packaging manufacturers in promoting self-service, has yet to be analyzed. This working paper fills this void by showing that the expansion of self-service operation and the increasing use of transparent packaging had a significant impact not only on how consumers purchased foods but also on how they understood food quality.

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