If you’ve ever had a craving for a certain iconic canned biscuit (Pillsbury!), you’ve probably also encountered one of life’s most perplexing forms of packaging: the paper pop can. Whether you open them with a spoon or smack them on the corner of a counter, they pop open when you least expect it, revealing the neatly stacked biscuits within. But why are they packed this way, and why must they open with a BANG?
It turns out these pop cans have been around for quite a while. As documented by the Kentucky Historical Society, Lively B. Willoughby, a wholesale bakery owner from Kentucky, was the first to pioneer this tubular packaging.
The idea was born out of Willoughby’s need to find a package that could keep his ready-to-bake biscuit dough fresh for months in the refrigerator, “which the housewife can bake or cook fresh without the trouble of preparing and molding the dough.”
After many experiments, some resulting in dough stuck to his ceiling, Willoughby landed on the right combination of ingredients and materials: Fleishmann’s baking powder and an Epsom salt-lined cardboard tube.
The cylindrical construction of the packaging kept the biscuit dough snugly in place so that the biscuits were perfectly formed and ready to be baked once the tube was popped.
Willoughby earned a patent for the invention in 1931 and began selling his biscuits under the name “Ye Olde Kentuckie Buttermilk Biscuits.” You can see a photograph of Willoughby’s original biscuit can on General Mills’ website.
Willoughby later joined forces with the Ballard & Ballard Flour company and sold them the patent. They continued to work together for years until eventually, Pillsbury acquired Ballard. (You can see an additional patent filed by Willoughby and his partners at Ballard online, which includes sketches of their updated design.)
Through the years, more adjustments have been made to Willoughby’s initial invention. Though it did a great job keeping the biscuits fresh, it wasn’t so easy prying the metal ends of the tubes and digging out the individual biscuits without ruining their perfect shape.
Later patents show an improvement in just that, illustrating a new tube that’s easily opened by—you guessed it—a firm smack on the kitchen counter. You can see it in this patent from 1961—in Figure 4 on the first page. Not only did this adjustment make the packages easier to open, but it also left the biscuits more readily accessible.
Though countless improvements have been since 1931, the current design still very much resembles the original. So next time you pop a can of your favorite ready-to-bake goodie, think of ol’ Lively, who made it all possible.