History of the Pillsbury Biscuit Tube
Pillsbury History and an Invention that changed Americas Kitchens
The iconic Pillsbury pull-apart dough tube has been a staple in the kitchen for over 50 years. It's a brilliant example of fun and brandable packaging that is sure to spark memories in almost every American home. I still chuckle at my personal memory of my grandmother's surprised face every time she opened one of those exploding tubes.
More than just a memorable packaging design
Not only is the Pillsbury tube a genius marketing prop, but it is also the product of careful and clever innovation that provided a practical packaging solution. At Erdie Industries, innovation is part of who we are; you could even say it's literally in our DNA, especially in the case of the Pillsbury invention.
The Erdie family and the American dream
John Erdie was a first-generation American born to a small family in Trenton, New Jersey. His parents had immigrated from Hungary in the early 1900s to begin a new life in America. By nature, John loved to tinker with things and even dabbled in creating his own alcohol during prohibition, which he sold at a bar or speakeasy that he ran with his wife in Trenton.
John Erdie began working at the RC Can Company right after high school, where he excelled in research and development. Due to his innovative nature, he was eventually placed on a team devoted to a special project for Pillsbury.
The paper tube, a new food packaging innovation
Pillsbury, at the time, was looking for a packaging solution to ship its dough across the country. Tubes were practical, air-tight, and easy to stack and ship. The problem with the tubes is that the sealed metal ends were extremely difficult to remove. Even if the customer could pry them off, they would then have to struggle to get the dough out of the long tube, either with a spoon or the customer would be forced to cut the rest of the tube up. Today we would say this was a UX (user experience) based problem, but that term would be heard until Don Norman would coin it in 1993. It's interesting to note that paper tubes had only been around for about 20 years at this time. This was a relatively new invention.
Erdie, along with Wilbur G. Fienup and John W. Adams, worked on this project in the late 1950s and, in 1958, would arrive at the design that we know and love today: the breakable tube. Thinking outside the box (or, in this case, the cylinder), the men determined that it would be easiest for the customer to open the tube near the center, at which point the paper layers could be peeled back to reveal the dough safely preserved inside the package. The team realized this could be achieved by building the tube to break intentionally by simply manufacturing the tube incorrectly. However, it turns out that incorrectly making a paper tube can be more complex than making one to be durable.
Firstly, the weak point must be consistent and located in a convenient location. Secondly, the tube would need to be ridged enough to survive transportation but fragile enough that it would not be a headache for a Pillsbury customer to open it later at home. On top of this, the packaging team would have to create a delicate balance with the baking team. After the dough is loaded into the tube, fluctuations in temperature can cause the dough to expand or contract, threatening the integrity of the casing. The next challenge was calculating the timing between making the dough and packaging it. Both teams were battling time. Yeast begins to work its delicious magic quickly, so the time between producing the dough and enclosing it in the package is critical. If one were to package too soon, the dough would not burst out with that satisfying pop. If packaged too late, the container could pop before the customer could even purchase the product. There were evidently a lot of exploding tubes or Pillsbury dough bombs created in trial and error that would eventually lead to the functional design of today.
The patent was filed on May 6th, 1958, and officially granted on March 14th, 1961. John Erdie would go on to be the manager of the Pottsville RC Can division and oversaw the creation of thousands of Pillsbury tubes. Pottsville had a railway line that provided Pillsbury with a means to transport their product across the country, making it the ideal location. The tube manufacturing factory where John worked was adjacent to the Pillsbury Factory. They were two separate buildings, but both were connected by a pipe that transported the tubes from the packaging side to the filling side (sort of like a real-world version of those Twix commercials of the early 2000s.)
How to open a Pillsbury can the correct way.
I've seen many people open Pillsbury products in different ways. My grandma's preferred method was to press into the line indicated in the patent picture with a spoon. However, the patent drawing clearly indicates that hitting the can against the side of a counter is actually how to pop the Pillsbury can. If there was ever a debate in your household on this, now you have evidence to back up why you are smacking the groceries on the countertop.
Inspired for later success in the packaging industry
The Erdie family would continue to focus on innovation in the paper-packaging field, most notably the Twist-n-Pull®, a modern endcap that provides an easy opening solution for shipping and mailing tubes. It's difficult to say whether it's nature or nature that makes us discover what we are meant to do with our lives. Jason, the owner of Erdie Industries, says he can remember his grandfather always tinkering with something. When asked how this influenced him or the direction of Erdie Industries, he replied, "You just have to try and think differently and solve problems. It should never be about competing. You just have to solve a problem for a customer. It's easy to lose balance between R&D and traditional business. You have to make sure there is a problem to be solved before you try and solve it."
When asked if there was anything else he remembered about his grandfather, Jason replied,
"He always dressed his best and drove a good car. He was truly living the American dream."