Bags — From the Beginning to Paper

Woven Basket with Lid for Carrying StuffIn the Beginning

From the earliest time of civilization, we needed to carry stuff around. Our hands had limited capacity so we developed ways of carrying stuff by creating bags and other containers out of animal hides or plant materials, and later from woven fabrics. Pottery and glass vessels were useful for carrying liquids and other items.

Back then bags and containers were made to fit their purpose and to last a long time. We had to actually make them by hand using devices which we also had to make (like an awl for piercing holes in a hide). Have you ever tried to poke a hole in a piece of leather — it isn’t easy. These early bags and containers were meant to be reused again and again and possibly passed down to the next generation.

Let’s narrow our focus to bags.

What Exactly is a Bag?

The word bag can mean many different things. According to Webster’s New World College Dictionary Fourth Edition, the word bag is defined as follows (partial list) :

  1. a nonrigid container made of fabric, paper, leather, etc., with an opening at the top that can be closed; sack or pouch
  2. a piece of hand luggage; suitcase
  3. a woman’s handbag or purse

For this and related posts, we’ll stick with definition 1 and focus on bags individuals use to shop and carry stuff around.

Enter the Paper Bag

With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, we could now use machines to manufacture bags from other materials, like paper. Paper bags may have marked the beginning of the shift to single-use bags.

Paper Bag History Highlights (with a little about shopping thrown in)

  • Paper Grocery Bag1852 – Francis Wolle invented and patented a machine to make paper bags.
  • 1871 – Margaret E. Knight was awarded a patent for a device she invented several years earlier that cut, folded and glued paper to create square bottoms for paper bags (she is often considered the mother of the grocery bag).
  • 1883 – Charles Stilwell was awarded a patent for a square-bottom bag with pleated sides, his “self-opening sack” or S.O.S. could hold more items, folded flat for storage, and could easily be opened and filled.
  • Paper Shopping Bag with Handles1912 – Walter H. Deubner created the first shopping bag with handles (the reinforced bottom and handles made it easier for his customers to buy and carry more purchases), by 1915 he had patented his product and was selling over a million shopping bags a year.
  • 1916 – Clarence Saunders opened the Piggly Wiggly, the first “self-service grocery store” where customers selected items from shelves themselves and checked out at the front of the store, he patented his concepts in 1917. Customers were likely carrying their purchases home in paper bags.
  • 1930’s – with the birth of the America supermarket (combining dry goods, meat, and produce in one location), demand for Stilwell’s paper bags skyrocketed. Their versatility, strength, and low cost made them first a nationwide then worldwide phenomenon.

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Author: Linda Poppenheimer

Linda researches and writes about environmental topics to share information and to spark conversation. Her mission is to live more lightly on Earth and to persuade everyone else to do the same.

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