An oyster pail (also known as a Chinese food box or Chinese takeout container) is a folded, waxed or plastic coated, paperboard container originally designed to hold oysters. It commonly comes with a handle made of solid wire. Currently, it is often in use by American Chinese cuisine restaurants primarily throughout the United States, to package hot or cold take-out food. It can also sometimes be found in other Western countries, such as Australia, New Zealand, Germany and England, but is rarely seen in China and other Asian countries with high numbers of ethnic Chinese.
The container has the advantage of being inexpensive, durable and fairly leak-proof as long as it is kept upright. The top usually includes a locking paperboard tab so that it is self-closing. The simple origami-like folded construction also allows for some escape of steam from hot food. If care is used to remove the flaps, and the sides are unfolded, the container can also double as a somewhat flimsy plate. However it is also typical to eat directly out of the container, a feat that the long reach of chopsticks makes easier. The containers are primarily used with American Chinese cuisine, though they have started to spread in some European countries.
Oyster pails that can be used safely in microwave ovens (without the metal handle, which can cause arcing in a microwave) are also available. Microwave-safe pails often come with no handle or a handle made of plastic.
Early patents date to 1890, 1894 and 1908. The paperboard oyster pail was invented 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) takes some amount of skill and can be difficult and dangerous, it was common to have the oyster seller open the oysters so they could be taken home for use in cooked dishes. The oyster pail provided an inexpensive and sanitary way to accomplish this. 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 tasty, unusual, fairly inexpensive and traveled well. The oyster pail was quickly adopted for "Chinese takeout". The paperboard pails were to some extent self-insulating, and could be used for a wide variety of foods including cooked rice, moist dishes such as egg foo young and sauced dishes, though they were generally unsuitable for hot highly liquid dishes such as soups.
The containers are also used by restaurants offering classic American takeout food, such as French fries or fried clams, but the paperboard containers have become strongly associated with Chinese takeout in popular culture. In 2011, the Smithsonian National Museum of American History displayed iconic Chinese takeout containers in its exhibit Sweet & Sour: A Look at the History of Chinese Food in the United States.
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- US 426698, Wilcox, F W & W D Moshier, "Paper pail", published 19 Apr 1890
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- US 886074, Reber, J G, "Oyster pail", published 28 April 1908
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- "Sweet & Sour: A Look at the History of Chinese Food in the United States". Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center. Smithsonian National Museum of American History. Archived from the original on 14 April 2013. Retrieved 20 March 2013.