Monday, January 2, 2023

History of the Grocery Bag

Blogger: Amber Lemus

Photo by Lina KivakaPhoto by Lina Kivaka:
In today's installment of a History of Ordinary things, we turn to one of the most common activities for this time of! If it weren't for this little invention, shopping would be a lot harder, and we'd have to limit what we buy to what we can carry in our two hands. We're speaking of the shopping or grocery bag. Whether you choose paper, plastic, or reusable, the history of this common item will be a fun trivia fact to explore.

Prior to the 1850's, shoppers had to carry their goods in a basket they brought from home, or have goods delivered to their house by the merchant. In those days, when folks weren't buying the amount of items we do today, that worked. But as society shifted, and we began purchasing more goods from stores, and stores widened their range of products, a need arose for a convenient way for customers to carry their goods home.

The first paper bag machine was invented by a guy by the name of Francis Wolle. He was an interesting character, to say the least, because he was not only a phychologist (scientist who studies algae) but also a priest of the Moravian church, AND an inventor. He invented the paper bag machine in 1851. These bags were much like envelopes, similar to the small ones you get at gift card shops. How did the machine work? Well, according to the patent he filed a year later in 1852, "pieces of paper of suitable length are given out from a roll of the required width, cut off from the roll and otherwise suitably cut to the required shape, folded, their edges pasted and lapped, and formed into complete and perfect bags."

Perfect bags, ya'll. The first-ever machine to make such a thing, and ta-da! Perfect. I couldn't help but laugh. Points for salesmanship, my guy.

Anyway, despite his claims of perfection, the bags didn't hold bulky items (like groceries) well, but the invention was still a success. The machine was the foundation for the Union Bag and Paper Company. His company thrived, moved to New York where he opened a paper mill, and then later merged with the Camp Manufacturing company to be known as the Union Camp Corporation. After this merger in 1956, they opened a bag factory in Watertown, MA which was the first bag factory in the United States. The company still exists today under the ownership of International Paper.

I find it pretty amazing that Wolle created a product, became the first to patent a machine to make them, and then became the company that pioneered that brand new industry.

That industry only grew, and in 1871 a female inventor, Margaret Knight designed a machine that made a better paper bag with a flat bottom, which made it able to hold more items. Margaret's story is at least one whole blog post on its own, so we'll cover her next month.

It was Charles Stillwell in 1883 who invented the collapsible brown paper bag we are familiar with today.

It wasn't until 1912 that a Minnesota grocer decided to add handles and a reinforcing cord to the bags. Walter Deubner patented this invention and started selling the bags for about five cents each, effectively inventing the the first paper tote, AND the first reusable tote.

With the new boom in manufacturing, paper bags became cheaper and cheaper to produce. By the 1950's, corporations began to realize that putting their brand on the bags would be a good mode of advertising. And just like that, something as mundane as a shopping bag became a status symbol. I mean, who doesn't want to get caught walking down the street with a crisp paper tote from a high-dollar department store with their brand pasted across the side like a swinging billboard?

Now, if you thought shopping bags reached the limit of potential, as a status symbol, let me blow your mind. Did you know that shopping bags ascended to the level of being a design category and works of art? They've even been featured in the Smithsonian’s Cooper Hewitt Design Museum. Here's a link to one of the pages on the Smithsonian with a display.

Now, up until this time, shopping bags were all made of paper. It was a Swedish company that started with a plastic t-shirt type of bag in the 1960's. By the 1980's, most stores were offering the poly bags alongside the paper ones. Since the plastic bags are much cheaper to produce, they've quickly overtaken the paper bags in most regular stores.

But many questions have been raised about the effect plastic bags have on the environment. I moved into a house that had a shopping center behind it. There was a plastic bag stuck in the tree for the two years that I lived there, and it was still in the same place when I moved out. It hadn't decomposed at all, just gotten dirtier and uglier. That's what made me start recycling all of my plastic bags. (If you don't already, please consider recycling these bags. In most areas, it's as easy as bringing them with you to the store and putting them in a box or bin at the entrance.) Because of these environmental concerns, plastic bags are losing popularity, especially in some areas like California. This is what has caused a boom in more Eco-friendly bags made out of various reusable materials.

I hope you enjoyed this brief history of the shopping bag. What type of shopping bag do you prefer? Paper, plastic, or eco? Have you ever kept a shopping bag as a memento? I'd love to hear about bags that were special pieces of art, or status symbols for you. 


Amber Lemus Christian Author
Two-time winner of the Christian Indie Award for historical fiction, Amber Lemus inspires hearts through enthralling tales She has a passion for travel, history, books and her Savior. This combination results in what her readers call "historical fiction at its finest".

She lives near the Ozarks in her "casita" with her prince charming. Between enjoying life as a boy mom, and spinning stories out of soap bubbles, Amber loves to connect with readers and hang out on Goodreads with other bookish peoples.

Amber is a proud member of the American Christian Fiction Writers Association. Visit her online at and download a FREE story by subscribing to her Newsletter!

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for the post today, and Happy New Year! In Maine, there is a ban on plastic shopping bags and you pay a nominal fee if you need a paper bag. It was annoying when the ban first started, because I would always forget that I needed the reusable bags. As far as what I prefer, I guess I'm used to the reusable ones now.