Oyster Pail

oyster pail

An oyster pail is a folded, waxed, paper food container commonly used by American Chinese restaurants, traditionally with a handle made of solid wire (microwave-safe plastic handles are also available). In the US oyster pails are now available in standard sizes and can also serve as self-measuring containers, so that many take-out foods are sold in pints and quarts and packed into pails of the appropriate size. They can also be found in some European countries such as Germany and England, but are rarely seen in China. The container has the advantage of being inexpensive, durable, and fairly leakproof, as long as it is kept upright. The top usually includes a locking paperboard tab. The simple origami-like folded construction also allows for some escape of steam from hot food. If the sides are unfolded, the pail can also double as a makeshift plate, but it is more common to eat directly out of the container, a feat that the long reach of chopsticks makes possible.

The paperboard oyster pail was invented in the US around 1894, at a time when fresh oysters were more popular, more plentiful, and less expensive than they are at present. Since shucking oysters (removing the raw meat from the shell) can be difficult and dangerous, it was common to ask the oyster seller open them. The oyster pail provided an inexpensive and sanitary way to bring home shucked oysters. In the early 20th century oyster pails were also used to hold honey. In the mid-20th century, overfishing (and the subsequent rise in price) of oysters left manufacturers with a significant number of unsold oyster pails. However, in the US after World War II, there was a huge increase in sales of prepared foods that could be purchased from restaurants, and heated or finished at home. Chinese food proved to be a popular choice, since it was relatively inexpensive and traveled well. The oyster pail was quickly adopted for ‘Chinese takeout.’

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