Did You Know?
How photography and Thomas Edison led to the invention of cheese paper
We all appreciate how a good cheesemonger protects our cheese purchase by carefully covering each wedge or wheel in custom-made cheese paper, wrapping it in neat origami-like folds. Few people, however, know the curious story of how this unique layered wrapping paper became a must-have cheese accessory.
For centuries cheeses were dipped in wax or wrapped in linen or leaves to protect them from the elements. This worked well until the cheese was cut open. Then problems began with dryness, cracking, and unwanted molds. Something better was needed. The ideal wrapping would block light and preserve a proper moisture barrier yet allow the cheese to “breathe.” The first step toward making this idealized covering—a waxed paper—actually happened in a French darkroom.
In 1851 photographer Gustave Le Gray discovered how to make better negatives by creating a prewaxed paper film. Being French, he of course loved cheese, but history reveals that his discovery never left the camera. It was not until 1890, when Thomas Edison rediscovered Le Gray’s waxed-paper film, that its potential was realized. Edison was trying to develop a working movie camera and found that he couldn’t get the lightweight paper film to move intact through the metal gears of his new motion picture camera. Of course, being Edison, he had a solution: why not widen Le Gray’s thicker waxed film and see if it would work? In the process of widening the waxed film, Edison quickly saw another opportunity: remove the photography chemicals and create a new wrapping for food.
Initially, Edison’s new paper was not porous enough to allow the cheese to breathe. But cheese vendors in France eventually solved that problem, and the resulting two-ply waxed paper became Europe’s favorite way to protect a cheese.
The story comes back to the States in 2005, when Mark Goldman, an American working for a cheese distributor, saw a niche for cheese consumers. He had traveled extensively in France and was impressed with the custom paper he saw at every little cheese shop. Now his company, Formaticum USA, sells imported French cheese paper for retail. Printed on one side with maps showing U.S. artisan cheesemakers, Formaticum’s paper is composed of a superthin porous inner layer of plastic and a wax-coated outer layer. It works well; Edison would be pleased.
Written by Ana Kinkaid