Consider the Peanut Butter Jar

In an age when product containers can easily and almost costlessly be shaped at the whim of their issuers, why does peanut butter continue to come in tall jars rather than squat tubs?

A corporate PR department would surely assert that it’s because that’s what people are used to and expect.

That, of course, is 99% horse feathers.

The real reason is salable waste, aka planned osolescence.

Tall, narrow containers make it needlessly difficult to use all the sticky, amorphous gels residing in them. This structural difficulty, in turn, leads to a small but meaningful amount of the peanut butter being throw away, rather than used. It means, on average, people buy the next jar of peanut butter a day earlier than they would if the stuff came in a short, wide tub that permitted easy access to the last portions.

If you have been around big-brand peanut butter lately, you’ll know that this point stands double. Nationally advertised peanut butter jars are not just tall cylinders, but, within that form, are fairly riddled with flanges and recesses that heighten the difficulty of using the last spoonfuls. Why?

Again, there’s only one plausible answer — the obvious one: Corporate capitalist product planners want us to throw away some of what they know we want and need.

Interestingly, this very example was apparently central to the career of Brooks Stevens, the industrial designer who first publicly enunciated/acknowledged the concept of “planned obsolescence.” Here is how Stevens, near the end of his life, explained his early entry into a field in which he eventually became a superstar:

Peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches inspired one of Brooks Stevens’s simplest and most ubiquitous designs.

“I loved peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches,” Mr. Stevens says. But the jars the peanut butter came in were tall with small caps. “I could never get the peanut butter out of the shoulders of the jar.”

“So I squared up the jar,” he recalls. “And then I made the opening the full diameter of the width of the jar, so that it was a big circle and had a big cap. Then you could get it all out of there.”

The obvious question for Stevens was why he stopped there. Why not go from jar to tub?

The answer was inherent in the job description of the modern corporate capitalist product engineer:

[The industrial designer] has to be a salesman, an engineer, a manufacturer — in the sense of knowledgeable about process and materials — and an artist, and in that order.

-Brooks Stevens to The Chroncile of Higher Education, September 16, 1992

It bears repeating, and remembering: Salesman, then engineer…in that order.