To Hold A Frog. Theory of The Box's Origin

By Ray Suzuki | April 2nd 2024

#Concept #history

Our hands are porous containments, only able to hold a frog, a fruit, a flower, or another hand. Our hands are scavengers, jugglers, manipulators, openers, and embracers–rather than containers. We can only hold onto something or someone for so long.

It’s not the insular ability to hunt and carve spears that propelled our civilization forwards, but our capacity to gather, carry, and store. Perhaps, our hands needed to extend themselves in capacity further than a handful. To employ a sling, a net woven out of flax fiber and your own hair, where we were able to gather precious oats, earthy roots, and astringent fruits. We learned to work with the seasonality and unpredictable futures: to store what we have gathered on a sunny afternoon, and claim it on a cold and rainy day, in hunger. Far more frequent were the days of gathering, than hunting. Yet both, the heroism of hunting and dexterity of gathering were vital, neither could exclude the other, as noted by Ursula K. Leguin in the essay Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction.

Agrarian livelihood drove the need to craft boxes, work wood, and construct basic structures that would allow us to further store and protect food, as well as seal our precious belongings. Later, societies of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Greece decorated boxes with intricate detail, precious stones, and metals. Ornament and inscription allowed us to provide a higher meaning to something so inherently simple. A box protected our beliefs, our rituals, our spirituality, and our culture. An ossuary was the carrier of the body into the underworld. A box was craftsmanship that invited art to tell a tale of our daily lives–the adornment of a box was the adornment of our stories: it wasn’t the paintings, sculptures, or fine art that held our precious, personal, familial, belongings. We wanted to hold onto a necklace gifted by a lover, a ring passed down from a maternal line, a letter of reconciliation, a knife with a carved-bone handle–as a relic. It was the urns, chests, coffers, and coffins that held all of it. The daily culture is inscribed in the story of our box-making. But how is our culture contained and protected today by a cardboard box of Amazon?

We learned how to build shipping containers, and with the invention of an industrial cardboard box in the late 19th century, the content within the box slowly turned into a commodity that preyed upon the pleasure of anticipation and the rush of excitement. As we open the box, the mystery is revealed and we have caught a piece of novelty in our hand. Naomi Klein encapsulates the elusive sense of satisfaction after opening a new box in No Is Not Enough:

“…while our branded world can exploit the unmet need to be a part of something larger than ourselves, it can’t fill it in any sustained way: you make a purchase to be a part of a tribe, a big idea, a revolution, and it feels good for a moment, but the satisfaction wears off before you’ve thrown out the packaging for that new pair of sneakers, that latest model of iPhone, or whatever the surrogate is. Then you have to find a way to fill the void again.

But it’s always worth remembering: at the heart of this cycle is that very powerful force — the human longing for community and connection. And that means there is still hope: if we rebuild communities and begin to derive more meaning and sense of the good life from them, many of us are going to be less susceptible to the siren song of mindless consumerism.”

Unboxing videos on YouTube are a phenomenon that allows us to pseudo-receive. Maybe, watching someone else unbox a new purchase from our cherished brands brings us closer to belonging, even without having to own the item ourselves. Something that evolved our culture throughout the centuries, continues to capture our attention and drives the endless growth of our economy today. The chest that once carried a mystery, became means to demystify and obtain the world.

Can we feel the desire to absolve the mystery: to feel the height of anticipation and slow down our need to gratify? To hold the tension.

Perhaps. We are reminded of the Japanese folktale of a young fisherman Tarō, who was told not to open a precious jeweled box, and still, he did. Surprisingly, the young man opens the box out of grief and derangement, after realizing that a hundred years have passed while he was gone. The grief of the lost community and family pushed Tarō to unseal the lid. White smoke came out of the box and turned Tarō into an old grey-haired man. The folktale parallels Naomi Klein’s sentiment: the presence of community soothes the insatiable consumption with the medicine of connection. Boxes are portals, a transformation, delineating boundaries of the inside from the outside. Opening the box merges both realities, by making the object, idea, or secret present on the outside. The way Tarō is transformed, upon receiving, so are we. The question is, who do we want to be transformed into, after opening a box?


Cover Image: Urashima Tarō opening the tamate-bako (Box of the Jewel Hand). Source:


Image 1: Complete set of canopic jars of the four sons of Horus; 900–800 BC; painted limestone; Walters Art Museum (Baltimore, US). Source: Wikipedia


Image 2: The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction by Ursula K. Le Guin


Image 3: Amazon prime shipping box. Source: Amazon