Wrap it Up

Plastic wrap was advertised as an alternative to aluminum foil and its associated freezer burn.

Inside your kitchen a battle rages between new and old, fresh versus mold. What weapons will fight such decay? In early 20th-century kitchens options included storing food in metal canisters, glass jars, tin foil, or wax paper. In the 1930s the new Freon refrigerators kept fresh that last slice of blueberry pie or the leftover deviled eggs from a picnic. Then, in the 1940s refrigerators began to include a freezer. The manufactured cold of a fridge or freezer kept food fresh for far longer but introduced new problems, such as “freezer burn.”

Another major storage advance in the mid-20th century came in the form of plastics. Molded plastics offered a lightweight, unbreakable alternative to metal and glass. And a hero of the lunchbox was flexible, disposable plastic film, or cling wrap, which was originally launched as Saran  Wrap and manufactured by Dow.

Plastic films were viewed as amazing advances; these see-through wonders became part of an American food culture that welcomed convenience and inspired a range of plastic wrapping with different chemical properties. Listen to this short audio about the chemistry of plastic films that keep meat fresh on supermarket shelves. Watch the slideshow to see how plastic is turned into giant bubbles and how Ziploc fights against the “cruel clutches of the freezer.”

Christy Schneider is Coordinator of Exhibitions at the Chemical Heritage Foundation.