And shopping with white gloves on.
Admit it: when you were really little you thought your Mom was as pretty as the lady in the picture, right?
Heck, most of us remember when those paper bags doubled as garbage bags. Those were also the days before garbage disposals, at least in my house. Garbage got thrown into a strainer to make it less gooey, then tossed in the bag. Since taking out the trash was my brother’s job, the highlight of my evening was to watch him cross the kitchen and go down the steps and walk up the driveway to the metal trash cans. It was always a tossup whether he’d make it to the cans before the bottom fell out of the darkening, damp sack.
Then–huzzah!–the 70s freed us of paper bags. In 1977, grocery stores began asking the classic question, “Paper or plastic?” at the checkout counter, and we never looked back. After all, creating brown paper bags hurt the environment. Those bags were made of chopped up trees, and their manufacture polluted rivers. Plastic, on the other hand, was a mysterious gift of the gods, right?
Here’s some history:
Plastic bags, wound on long rolls, were developed in the late 1950s, initially for sandwiches and smaller items. These rolled bags didn’t appear in produce departments until 1966. Bread makers started putting their bread in plastic bags that same year.
Believe it or not, the plastic bags designed in the 1950s had handles affixed to them, not molded in. That didn’t work too efficiently. A Swedish engineer (Sten Gustav Thulin) developed and patented a one-piece manufacturing process for the bags in the 1960s. He sold it to a company called Celloplast which briefly enjoyed a plastic bag monopoly on both sides of the Atlantic–until Mobil managed to get the US patent overturned.
Department stores like Sears and J.C. Penney’s introduced plastic bags in the mid-1970s. Remember when all those stores gave us nice pretty paper bags to hold our purchases? Plastic seemed better, because plastic didn’t wear and deteriorate in your hand during an afternoon of shopping.
Which brings us up to 1977 and the plastic grocery bag rollout. American companies like the Dixie Bag Company tweaked the design, and in 1982 the Kroger and Safeway chains introduced the definitive bags that are still in use today. They call it the T-shirt shape, though I can’t make the name fit. Where are the sleeves?
By the 1990s, folks realized that the plastic bags were not a harmless free gift, and recycling programs for them took off. However, the ubiquity and numbers of the bags made recycling a fairly lame gesture. We use about 100 billion plastic bags per year world wide, 2.7 billion in Los Angeles, where I live–and so the city has now banned them. Shoppers bring their own bags to the store (and yeah, the bags are mostly plastic but they are reusable). Just like our ancestors.
Up till around 1850, folks used to bring canvas bags along with them when they shopped (if they shopped–before 1850 we were largely rural and didn’t buy much in stores). Big things, like bolts of fabric or bags of seed, were loaded up in the wagon to be taken home, but in the city the canvas bags were handy.
The paper bag that we recall from the ’50s was invented a century before–in 1852, by the Wolle brothers of Jacobsburg, Pennsylvania. It took about twenty years and some tweaking to the design before the bag became popular. In fact, that photo above left is Luther Childs Crowell of Cape Cod, who in 1873 patented the square-bottomed bag. Go, him.
And the incredible photo on the right is of a paper bag from England in the 1850s–I found this at the Two Nerdy History Girls site, my new favorite place to
waste time educate myself. At that link, you can learn more about the bag and its illustrations.
So we’re back to the 50s–the 1850s, not the 1950s. Back to the days when folks took fabric bags into stores with them and pack those bags for transport home. Forget the throwaway bags that end up in the Pacfic Gyre. This is the new normal–same as the old normal. Except that no one has to wear gloves.
In case you’re interested,there’s also a ton of other trivia about plastic bags that didn’t make iti into this post at BagMonster.