Before the Bag

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 would choose a basket depending on how much weight they customer could carry and how far they were traveling. Baskets often had a double handle for extra support and a split lid that allowed the user to open them from the center while it provided security. 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 19th 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 19th century when Francis Wolle patented the first paper bag machine in 1852. [1] This would lead to an assortment of shapes and sizes to be developed as inventors Margaret E. Knight and Charles Stilwell expanded on Wolle’s design.[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 brings clarity to the reverence that was awarded to the paper bag.  The Daily Exchange in Baltimore, Maryland ran an article titled “A New Yankeeism” which highlighted the growth of the budding North. Among other advancements in technology, was a reflection on 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 would get wet they would easily deteriorate and force customers to scramble home in order to keep their goods from being 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 14th century. Carrier bags remerged several times during the early 20th century, each time they were brought to a new audience but held a similar purpose. In Czech Republic (then Czechoslovakia),  Vavřín Krčil a leading producer of women’s hair nets started transforming his hair nets into mesh shopping bags. During this period mesh bags went through a transformation from animal hair to 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 2.[6] Lastly, Russia adopted the string bag during the early 20th-century. Where Krčil has 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 would eventually need to be repaired, could take up too much space within the home or eventually grow old and lose their appeal. These costs are what led consumers to want a disposable 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.






Back                                                                            Next


[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.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s