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For years, packing material used for shipping was an afterthought. When we filled a crate with apples and oranges or a box with pots and pans, we cast about for a material to insulate the goods from bumps, dings, and bruises. We grabbed whatever was around and left over. Old straw or yesterday’s newspaper was the stuff of choice and convenience.

Today, filler is no longer a postscript. In recent decades, smart inventors and shrewd entrepreneurs have spent plenty of time and resources developing products that are meant to fill up vacant commercial space. Fillers have become a business of substance. The most ubiquitous contemporary example of this phenomenon is a filler that is made with nothing more substantial than air.

Consider the origins of bubble wrap, a vital enabler in the world of online shopping and mail-order catalogs. It had an unlikely start in 1957, at the dawning of the jet age, when two engineers, Alfred Fielding and Marc Chavannes, took two plastic curtains and ironed them together. They created a sheet pockmarked by a bunch of air bubbles. Fielding and Chavannes knew they had something valuable on their hands, but they weren’t sure what it was. When they founded their company, Sealed Air, the duo certainly hadn’t set out to market a material that would change the world of packing.

Rather, they decided to roll out a mod new product for the comparatively glamorous world of home decor. They believed that hip young homeowners would be interested in plastering the new material on their walls. The idea fell flat. Next they tried to market the material as an insulation for greenhouses, but again there were few takers.

It wasn’t until the early 1960s that Fielding and Chavannes hit pay dirt. At the time, most companies were using shredded newspaper for packing material. The broadsheet industry was thriving, and newspapers were cheap and available. One forward-looking company, however, realized that its futuristic product called for a futuristic packaging material. IBM, then known as International Business Machines Corporation, needed some inventive stuffing to insulate the boxes that carried its new 1401 business computers. Filled with vacuum tubes and intricate wiring, the 1401 was expensive and fragile. IBM found that the bubble wrap produced by Sealed Air shielded the electronic brain from shocks and jolts.

The rest is plastics history. In the past four decades, bubble wrap has emerged as a staple of global industry. The stuff that can be easily popped by children’s fingers is nonetheless incredibly tough. To demonstrate bubble wrap’s strength, Sealed Air took it to a pumpkin-dropping contest in Iowa in 2000. Gourdzilla, a mutant pumpkin that tipped the scales at a whopping 815 pounds, was winched up by a 35-foot crane and released onto a mound of bubble wrap. The engineers anticipated the force, and the bubble wrap protected the pumpkin’s fall — until it bounced off the wrap and onto the ground.

The alternatives still exist — newspapers (especially for folks at home) and polystyrene peanuts. But bubble wrap is far more pervasive and welcome. Peanuts and papers generally have but one life as a wrap, but bubble wrap is easily redeployed (or popped for fun).

Today, bubble wrap is but one of several filler products made by Sealed Air. Other products that effectively insulate precious content, whether it’s books or steaks, include Jiffy mailers, Instapak foam cushioning, and Fill-Air inflatable packs. But bubble wrap, which accounts for about 10 percent of its $4.1 billion in annual sales, is still the bestknown. As Forbes noted recently, “The company churns out enough bubble wrap every year to wrap the equator ten times.” And it’s the most appreciated. Bubble wrap is one of the unheralded but crucial cogs that helps the global economy function smoothly. It gets things where they need to go in one piece, helping products survive jarring truck rides and the jostling and jiggling of cargo holds, hand carts, and 18-wheelers.

The concept of turning filler into profits also took root in the 1950s in another industry that, curiously, also relied on a form of plastic: vinyl records. LPs and 45s used to be stamped in vinyl, generally with one hit song that the label was pushing. But unlike CDs, vinyl discs were two-sided. And so the record companies figured they’d fill the empty space. It didn’t make sense, however, to put a second hot song opposite the first chart buster. (A second hit could be another sale.) The main song became the A-side, while the flipside was a throw in. Generally the B-side was a tune that didn’t get airplay. It was merely an afterthought, a product of lesser quality, sometimes just pure filler. By and large, B-sides were utterly forgettable. It was a rare occasion that they turned out to be bigger hits than the A-side. Gloria Gaynor’s enduring “I Will Survive” was a B-side. So too was the Beatles’ “Revolution” (“Hey Jude” was on the A-side), Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog,” and Queen’s “We Will Rock You.”

But entertainment is an unpredictable business. Every year in Hollywood a few expensive surefire hits from a studio’s A-list turn out to be B-films or bombs. And every year, a few modestly budgeted indie productions, small movies designed to fill out slates, turn out to be box-office champions.

But rock ’n’ roll isn’t the only all-American phenomenon in which filler plays an important role. What would the traditional Thanksgiving Day dinner be without filler, or stuffing? Thanks to the labors of an unheralded inventor, our traditional stuffing has become a huge year-round business for one of the world’s largest food companies.

In the early 1970s, Ruth Siems, who worked for General Foods in research and development, was asked to come up with an instant stuffing for chickens and turkey. Stuffing, a laborious product to make, was generally associated with Thanksgiving, when people take time from their busy lives and devote a day to preparing a meal. In modern America, time had become increasingly difficult to find, almost impossible. But the marketers at General Foods reasoned that an instant version of the stuffing would be appealing to harried consumers and could expand it from a labor-intensive, once-a-year treat to a convenient, year-round side dish.

It took some doing, but Siems helped develop a dry long-lasting product, close enough to the real thing, that would absorb water and maintain a consistency appealing to finicky eaters. General Foods tested the product in the spring of 1972, and a year later it hit the market. Siems received a reported $125 one-time bonus for her work. But General Foods (now part of Kraft) has reaped dividends from Stove Top stuffing year after year. The one-billionth box of Stove Top was sold in 1984. And each year, Kraft sells about 60 million boxes in November alone.

DAN GROSS writes the Moneybox column for Slate magazine. He can be heard frequently on National Public Radio.
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