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.


The Pieces Make the Picture: Jigsaw Puzzles

Three clues in a recent crossword puzzle put me on the trail that led me to another kind of puzzle—the jigsaw puzzle. There was a phase in my life when I was quite a jigsaw puzzle-ist. As a student in England, the floor of my room on campus was almost one-quarter covered with a large ‘work in progress’ jigsaw puzzle. This was a community effort where friends who used to come by would fit a piece, or more, to the evolving picture. The next time jigsaws featured in my life was when I used to get simple puzzles for my young children. They were fun, and they kept them engaged with the task of finding a piece that ‘matched’ and ‘fitted’.

It is precisely the exercise of matching and fitting that was the aim of the original puzzle that later came to be called a jigsaw puzzle. The history goes back over two-and-a-half centuries to an English cartographer and engraver named John Spilsbury, who was thinking of a way to help school children learn geography. In 1766 he mounted one of his master maps onto a thin piece of mahogany wood and used a marquetry saw to cut the picture into pieces.

Thus was created what he described as a ‘dissected map’. Children were to reassemble the collection of pieces to recreate a complete map. It is believed that Spilsbury’s first ‘dissected map’ was called ‘Europe Divided Into Its Kingdoms’ and the pieces were cut mainly along the geopolitical boundaries of those days. Incredibly, the original puzzle still survives in good condition, and it occupies the pride of place in the Toy Halls of Fame in The Strong Museum in Rochester in the United States. This history museum houses the world’s largest collection of historical materials related to play.

These early maps, each handcrafted and made of good quality paper and wood, were expensive, and not affordable for wide use. It is believed that Spilsbury’s early puzzles were used to teach geography to the children of King George III, and were bought by a few elite boarding schools. 

Spilsbury himself died at the young age of 29 in 1769. But by the end of the century the dissected map puzzles had become popular, and London itself had around twenty such puzzle makers. They introduced themes other than maps for the pictures—alphabet and multiplication tables, themes from the Bible, and pictures of historical events and people. The material and labour costs continued to be high.

The term ‘jigsaw’ to describe these puzzles only came to be used in the 1880s when a special type of saw called a treadle jigsaw was invented. The saw operated by a treadle had a blade that could cut irregular curves; that made the cutting of the pieces easier and cheaper. This was ideal for the hereto called ‘dissected maps’ which could now have pieces with more intricate shapes that could interlock. Thus the ‘maps’ evolved into more complex puzzles that came to be popularly known as ‘jigsaw puzzles’.

The jigsaw which had arrived in the United States in the 1800s became a popular marketable item. In the meantime colour lithography techniques enabled better quality pictures to be developed more efficiently and the quality and variety of jigsaw puzzles also improved.  Enterprising companies developed new production techniques and materials that helped increase production and lowered cost, as well as marketing gimmicks that promoted sales. The cleverest move by the puzzle industry was to introduce puzzle designs for adults. Thus in the first decade of the twentieth century, what had started as an educational support for children, and then had become a source of entertainment as a children’s toy, the jigsaw puzzle, emerged as a popular hobby for adults. 

This kind of pastime was just what people needed in the Great Depression in America in the 1930s. There was large-scale unemployment, people could not afford to go out for entertainment, and jigsaw puzzles provided a no-cost pastime that could engage the whole family. Sales soared; puzzles were offered as freebies with the purchase of other items, and there were even stores and libraries that offered puzzles on rent.

Jigsaw puzzles continued to be made from wood or plywood, and were generally hand cut right until the outbreak of World War II. By the time the war ended, these were too expensive to produce. That is when cardboard began to be used and mechanized cutting equipment enabled large-scale production. Most jigsaw puzzles are today made of good quality cardboard, but there are still collectors of high quality wooden puzzles and some niche manufacturers of the same.

For the rest of the twentieth century, jigsaw puzzles continued to occupy a low-key but steady presence as gifts for children and hobbyist adults. With the twenty-first came the digital tsumani that deluged the market with an entirely new medium for education and entertainment. Old and young were swept away in the flood of never ending apps, data and virtual games that came and went breakneck speed. Until the Pandemic struck. The world changed overnight. Confined inside, over-satiated with a virtual existence, and flickering screens, overwhelmed with situations never before imagined, families dug into forgotten caches to pull out physical books and board games, and rediscovered the jigsaw puzzle!

Once again, the many ‘therapeutic’ benefits of the jigsaw are being hailed. Putting a jigsaw together is considered as a complete brain exercise as it involves both the right (creative and intuitive) and left (logical and objective) sides of the brain. It trains the eyes to pay minute attention to colours, shapes and other details, in order to match the pieces. This exercise improves visual-spatial reasoning, and helps develop perception, focus and concentration. It also calls for patience and persistence. Puzzles are great as a group activity, and also perfect for a quiet solo undertaking. There is more to the pieces of a jigsaw than the eye can see—a perfect picture lies within.   

It’s always the small pieces that make the big picture.