Before the Bag

Small, ash splint gathering basket with carved handle. Square bottom, vertical sides, and round rim. Ash splint wicker weave with a checker weave base. The inner rim is carved wood with an outer, splint rim held in place with a single ash splint lash.

Gathering Basket. Small, ash splint gathering basket with carved handle. Square bottom, vertical sides, and round rim. Gift of Ellen A. Robbins Stone. Historic New England.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, consumers used an assortment of objects to carry products from the store to their homes. First, there were baskets. Like paper and cotton carrier bags today, baskets came in a range of sizes. Consumers chose baskets depending on how much weight they could carry and how far they were traveling. Baskets often featured a double handle for extra support and a split lid that provided security and allowed the user to open them from the center. Basket materials ranged from wood to wicker to metal. They were reusable but were often difficult to repair. Some of the wicker baskets that were popular during the nineteenth century resemble the plastic baskets that are available in modern grocery stores.

Fixby, Fobes & Co., St. Louis paper bag factory.

The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. “Fixby, Fobes & Co., St. Louis paper bag factory.” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed May 10, 2018.

After baskets came paper bags. Paper bags became popular in the middle of the nineteenth century when Francis Wolle (1817–1893) patented the first paper bag machine in 1852. [1] In the following years, other inventors like Margaret E. Knight (1838–1913) and Charles Stilwell (dates unknown) expanded on his design to include an assortment of shapes and sizes. [2] It was not unusual for customers to reuse paper bags to carry lunch, fill waste receptacles, or bring them back to the store for another outing. In 1867, The Leeds Mercury, a newspaper based in West Yorkshire, England mentioned that a “new kind of paper bag” was in development that could “hold water for days without losing a drop” [3] This advertisement, although outlandish at best, illustrates the reverence that many awarded the paper bag.  The Daily Exchange in Baltimore, Maryland ran an article in [year] titled “A New Yankeeism,” which highlighted the [economic? Industrial?] growth of the budding North. Listing its many technological advancements, the article reflected on northerners’ grocery shopping habits, noting that paper bags are “almost indispensable articles in the Grocery retail trade.” [4] Paper bags were often sturdy but the “almost” in the author’s comment speaks to their fragility.  When paper bags became wet, they easily deteriorated, forcing customers to scramble home before their goods spilled and became damaged.


Original mesh shopping bags, (1930-1940). Via. Chalupa Stržanov

While paper bags and baskets were ideal for some, others patrons sought out cotton carrier bags. Cotton bags had been a resource for global trade going as far back as the fourteenth century. Carrier bags re-emerged for the same purpose several times during the early twentieth century for new generations of consumers. In the Czech Republic (then Czechoslovakia), Vavřín Krčil (1895–1968), a leading producer of women’s hair nets, repurposed the nets as mesh shopping bags. During this period, producers began to phase out mesh bags’ original material, animal hair, instead of using artificial silk yarn. [5] String bags in Germany were almost identical to those in the Czech Republic, but upscale shoppers welcomed the addition of leather straps after World War II. [6] Lastly, Russia adopted the string bag during the early twentieth century. While Krčil had used silk yarn and Germany incorporated leather straps, distributors across the Soviet Union used synthetic materials to create a bag that could shrink and expand when necessary. [7]

Garbage gleaner, Lower West Side, New York City, 1915

The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. “Garbage gleaner, Lower West Side, New York City, 1915” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed May 10, 2018.

Paper bags, carrier bags, and baskets are useful, and the latter often hold sentimental value. Consumers recognized that these objects eventually needed repair, took up too much storage space or lost their aesthetic appeal. In light of these inconveniences, consumers sought out a disposable carrying object.

As class and social cues have advanced, so have the relationships humans have to object. Patterns have emerged to show people work as individuals and in groups when engaging in the reuse economy, historically “urban poor and charity groups such as the Salvation Army collected materials from dumps and city streets for resale to merchants.”[8] There was an unspoken desire for disposability and the market was changing. Consumers who had “discarded…materials perceived” to be trash regularly overlooked the idea that “sufficient utility” of a broken item maybe “salvaged”  in order to fit another person’s needs. Thu, proving the idea that the one person’s trash can be another person’s treasure.[9] People who were traditionally considered poor and owned few disposable objects we’re now in a space where they had many objects to get rid of. While wealthier people were holding onto objects longer and purchasing things that were more expensive. Overall, plastic bags created an opportunity for choice, you could choose to keep or toss out your bag(s) because they were designed to be disposable.






The Plastic Bag                                    Inventor: Sten Gustaf Thulin


[1] Strasser, Susan. Satisfaction Guaranteed; The Making of the American Mass Market. New York: Pantheon, 1989, (31).

[2] Craig, Barbara. “The Great Paper Bag Invention.” The Indianapolis Star, February 6, 1977. Accessed May 10, 2018. Bags.

[3] “The Great French Exhibition.” The Leeds Mercury, June 8, 1867. Accessed May 10, 2018. bags useful.

[4] “A New Yankeeism.” The Daily Exchange, June 17, 1859. Accessed May 10, 2018. bags useful.

[5] S.r.o, Business Logic. “Díky Vavřínu Krčilovi Se Zrodila Se Síťovka –” Polybius at The Click to Network. Accessed May 10, 2018.

[6] “Allgemein.” Klassik Lust. Accessed May 10, 2018.

[7] Rosemont, Penelope. Surrealist Women: An International Anthology. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998, (40).

[8] Carl A. Zimring (2005). Cash for Your Trash: Scrap Recycling in America. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, (2).

[9] Ibid.


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