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Archive for Monday, January 25, 2010

‘Pop’ icon Bubble Wrap celebrating 50 years

January 25, 2010

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Bubble Wrap streams out of an extruding line at the Sealed Air plant in Saddle Brook, N.J.

Bubble Wrap streams out of an extruding line at the Sealed Air plant in Saddle Brook, N.J.

— People have walked to the altar dressed in it, protected their garden plants with it, even put it on display at highbrow art museums.

Mostly, they like the sound it makes when they destroy it, piece by piece, which largely explains the appeal of Bubble Wrap, the stress reducer disguised as package cushioning that maintains an inexplicable hold on pop culture.

The product once envisioned as a new type of wallpaper turns 50 this month, and enthusiasts’ obsession with it has spawned more than 250 Facebook pages devoted to Bubble Wrap.

Like many innovations, Bubble Wrap initially was conceived for an entirely different purpose. Ken Aurichio, communications director for Sealed Air, the Elmwood Park-based company that manufactures Bubble Wrap, related that a New York City designer approached inventors Marc Chavannes and Al Fielding in the late 1950s with a proposal for creating textured wallpaper.

That idea stalled, but the product the two men had created in a small lab in New Jersey found its niche when, according to company lore, Fielding was flying into Newark Airport and noticed the fluffy clouds that seemed to cushion the plane’s descent.

Fifty years later, Sealed Air has global revenues of more than $4 billion and legions of fans who have come up with myriad uses for Bubble Wrap (It’s a wig! It’s a mobile home! It’s a sleeping bag! It’s a flotation device!).

Two apparently disparate forces conspired to shape Bubble Wrap’s growth: The advent of the transistor — and later the personal computer with all its accessories — which made the shipping of delicate electronic components a multibillion-dollar industry; and the Internet, which provided a forum for fanatics to swap stories and cement Bubble Wrap as a cultural icon.

It’s difficult to imagine Chavannes and Fielding, both now deceased, having any inkling that their invention would inspire such silliness or find its way into movies (Wall-E, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective), television (Monk) and high culture (Museum of Modern Art exhibit, 2009).

Then there’s the true badge of hipness (for now, at least): A bubble-popping application for Apple’s iPhone.

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