More Than Just a Paper Bag

12 July is marked as World Paper Bag Day to celebrate environment-friendly paper bags as an alternative to harmful bags made of plastic.

This month marks an important step for the environment. The Government of India has mandated a ban on manufacturing, import, stocking, distribution, sale, and use of single-use plastic items. Over the years while there have been both legal as well as voluntary efforts to reduce the menace of plastic pollution, the figures and ground realities across the world indicate an alarming trend of increase in throw-away plastics.

It is at a time like this when there is a deluge of information, and debates, about more eco-friendly alternatives. It is a time when paper bags are remembered and revived.

While the paper bag is an easy shop-and-tote item, it does not often merit much thought beyond its immediate function. However the humble paper bag has a fascinating history, not just as an object, but as a symbol.

Historically packaging material and containers were made of metal, wood, canvas, and jute. While these were durable and sturdy, their production was time-consuming and expensive. In the 1800s paper was introduced as packaging material. It was in 1852 that Francis Wolle an American priest and inventor invented a machine that could cut and paste paper into an envelope-shaped bag. This enabled mass production which lowered the manufacture time and cost; and these bags became popular with grocery stores in the United States.

The next important development in the design of the bag came from Margaret Knight, who then worked for the Columbia Paper Bag Company. Margaret’s job was to fold paper bags by hand, a slow and inefficient process. Margaret had an inventor’s mind; she started thinking of ways to improve the design as well as the process. She noted that the shape of the bag prevented it from being used for a number of items that would not comfortably fit at the bottom. She began to work on designs for a machine that would modify the shape of the bag so that it was flat at the bottom, and automate the manufacture. Within six months she had created a wooden prototype which was more efficient, but not sturdy enough. So she looked for a machinist who could make the machine in iron. After making refinements Margaret felt that she had created a design, and a machine unique for its time. When she filed for a patent for the machine and design, she found that a Charles Anon had already been awarded a patent for the same machine; her invention had been stolen. Margaret was a feisty woman. Not only was it unusual for a woman to file for a patent in the 1800s, she also hired an attorney (beyond her modest income) to fight her case, where her opponent claimed that because she was a woman, and not highly educated, she could not possibly have invented a complex piece of machinery. Margaret won the case, and the legitimate right to her own invention. On July 11, 1871, she became one of the first women to receive a patent. The inventor also became an entrepreneur when she later started her own company the Eastern Paper Bag Company.

The paper bag continued to be symbol of early feminism in the United States. In the 1920s schools in poorer rural areas where children were often underfed, established lunch programmes in schools. But among the more affluent class, the dominant idea was that mothers should be at home to provide children with hot lunches when they came home from school for a midday break. To send a child to school with a packed lunch was considered to be a dereliction of a mother’s duty. In the mid-1970s twenty mothers in New Jersey sent their children to school with their lunch packed in a brown paper bag. This caused some children to be suspended, and became a debated issue. But it also heralded the message that women need not to be confined to the kitchen, and could go out to work, even while ensuring a suitable meal for their children to carry. Paper bags thus became a rallying cry for women who wanted the freedom to be able to work, whether they needed the income or simply wanted a life that involved more than being home to provide hot lunches.

Today in the United States, the term ‘a brown bag meeting’ denotes an informal meeting or training that generally occurs in the workplace around lunchtime, and where participants typically bring their own lunches, which are associated with being packed in brown paper bags.

While the brown paper bag was a symbol of liberation for women in the United States, it was a symbol of discrimination based on colour, in the same country.

Slavery was abolished in the United States only a few years before the paper bag became popular in shops. Slavery itself had its own nuances of ‘colourism’. The slaves were not all of a uniform colour—their complexion ranged from very dark-skinned ones to varying shades of light-skinned. Over time, the lighter-skinned slaves acquired more privileges and education. When slavery was abolished it gave way to a strong hierarchy among the black people, based on the shade of their skin. In the early 1900s upper class Black American families, church and civic groups, and educational institutions devised their own systems of colour-based discrimination. They required members of the Black community to pass a ‘brown paper bag test’ for inclusion.  If an applicant’s skin was lighter than a brown paper bag, they were accepted. Those with skin too dark to pass the test were kept out. Even in prestigious Black universities like Howard University, there were “paper bag parties” where a brown paper bag was pasted on the front door; only those whose complexion matched, or were lighter in colour, could gain admission. It was a brown paper bag that held the key to access to certain public spaces or social events.

Thus the brown paper bag that was a liberating symbol for women in America, also became a symbol of discrimination, reinforcing colourism among the Black communities.

Meanwhile the square-bottomed brown paper bag continued to be popular for its more practical use as a convenient carrier of goods. Innovations were added to further enhance its capabilities. Pleated sides were introduced which expanded its holding capacity, and made it easier to fold. At some point, handles were added which made it easier to carry.

It was in the 1980s that plastic bags began to creep into the market. By the 2000s the plastic tsunami had swept across the world. Plastic bags were touted as the answer to all packaging requirements, as being reusable, and also cheaper to produce and market. Paper bags almost became a luxury, or a symbol of the emerging generation of ‘green consumers’. Today the havoc wracked by that plastic tsunami is evident in the alarming pictures of un-degradable throw-away plastics that are clogging our waterways and oceans, and piling up on our land. There is a clarion call for looking for alternatives, among which the paper bag heads the list.

Perhaps it is time to relook at the history of the paper bag that we hardly give a second thought to. And give it a new use and mission.


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