Of all the things I’ve purchased during the pandemic, the most useful has been a box cutter. Until last summer, I had put off buying one for more than 15 years, through no fewer than nine apartment moves’ worth of unpacking with dull scissors and countless struggles against shipping boxes bound by tape re inforced with tiny threads. This knife entered my life as a tool for some minor home repairs, but it’s scarcely exited my right hand since. It doesn’t even have a place to be put away. It is never away.
For more than a year, I have wielded my box cutter like a machete in a jungle of packaging, disassembling boxes taller than I am and smaller than the palm of my hand. I’ve ordered things online that I might have previously picked up on the way home from work, as well as a slew of things that I needed or wanted as life changed: disposable masks, sweatpants to replace the pairs that sprouted holes, a desk chair after my sciatic nerve began to throb. Many of the boxes those items came in contained other boxes that also needed to be broken down. In the at-home hair dye kit I ordered to cover my roots while salons were closed, for example, almost everything inside the box (itself sheathed in a cardboard sleeve) came in its own, smaller box—the tube of hair dye, the disposable gloves, even the single-use plastic bonnet.
That’s to say nothing of the crumpled brown paper, the air-filled clear-plastic buffers, the little cardboard inserts used to hold a product within an exterior box’s transparent window, the generic thankyou-for-your-purchase cards, the stickers and refrigerator magnets that come tucked inside orders from venture-backed lifestyle brands. No matter how much I have tried to consolidate orders; to buy in unglamorous, low-waste bulk; or to just go without, the cardboard and paper and plastic keep piling up. A certain amount of it is necessary for transportation purposes, but much of it is just for show, with no way to opt out of being in the audience.
I would be giving myself too much credit if I claimed that I hated creating all this refuse. I hate looking at it in a sad, flattened stack in the corner of my apartment, hate that there isn’t an obvious use for almost any of it, hate that it’s a physical manifestation of my occasionally poor impulse control. But opening up a brand-new purchase is the carefully orchestrated emotional crescendo of the consumer experience, and it has the power to give basically anyone a dopamine hit. These opportunities used to be more isolated—maybe you went to the grocery store once a week and the mall a couple of times a month. Now, if you have an internet connection and a credit card, something new to open can always be on the way. It feels good to dig through all those layers and unearth a little treat, no matter if it’s just hair dye or sweatpants. Even the most mundane of purchases has taken on a matryoshka-like quality.
This phenomenon has only accelerated as Americans have shifted more of their consumption online, where they can’t touch or smell or otherwise size things up the way they would in a store. On the internet, packaged products are often judged by how attractive they look in photos, and there’s no shortage of alternatives on offer. As the sheer number of consumer choices has grown exponentially, the purposes that packaging serves have grown more intricate. At this peculiar moment in American consumer history, the experience of opening and handling a purchase can be more important than the thing itself.
ACCORDING TO THOMAS HINE, the author of The Total Package: The Secret History and Hidden Meanings of Boxes, Bottles, Cans, and Other Persuasive Containers, packaging isn’t just a product of consumer culture; it helped create that culture. Before industrial production spread packaged goods across the United States in the late 19th century, most people grew or made most of the things they needed; what they couldn’t make, they bought from general stores or local peddlers. You’d take a sack into the store and ask for however much flour or sugar you needed, you’d negotiate a price, and the shopkeeper would scoop your purchase into your sack.
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