Topic: The Off-taste of Trademark: Packaging, shelf-life, and food science in the early US peanut industry

Presenter: Tad Brown, PhD Candidate, TC Beirne School of Law

Advisors: Brad Sherman, Xan Chacko

Venue: Sir Harry Gibbs Moot Court, W247, Bldg 1

Time: Thursday 25 July 2016 3-3.30pm

Abstract: This talk reflects on the physicality of trademark and how inscriptions can literally become embodied in foodstuffs. The focus is on the historical product development of Tom’s toasted peanuts. In 1924, Tom Huston identified two reasons that people did not consume more peanuts. He proclaimed to have solved the first—ensuring peanuts stay crisp “almost indefinitely.” The second was the need to “wash your hands to remove the oil and salt after you have finished eating.” I turn to the first claim to consider how Tom’s went about experimenting with packaging and labelling to achieve the sought-after shelf-life for the widespread retail distribution of Tom’s 5¢ toasted peanuts.

Tom’s innovative use of cellophane, and his patent on a bag “longer than a hand is wide,” changed the retail market for peanuts in the U.S. The packaging created a new research problem, however, as the ink of the label was suspected of influencing the smell and quality of the snackfood. Tom hired a chemist to design a series of various treatments to overcome the “very strong and offensive [odor] after [peanuts] have been kept in an airtight container for several weeks” yet retain the desired crispiness. Exploring how companies in the early 20thcentury, like Tom’s, relied upon intellectual property and innovations in retail packaging to achieve market recognition demonstrates that the material basis of trademark could also compromise the quality of the product itself, acting as a disservice to the goodwill the mark intended to generate. This history moves away from the informational treatment of food labels as fixed knowledge and, instead, questions the epistemic consequences of needing to affix marks on to perishable goods.

More information: All welcome, no RSVP required