The History of the Brown Paper Bag

The History of the Brown Paper Bag

The History of the Brown Paper Bag

Paper or Plastic? Before you decide, you should know the entire history of the brown paper bag. This everyday item has a rich history of innovation and cultural symbolism. Brown kraft paper bags like the kinds you can find on our website have carved out their unique place in history. When asked paper or plastic, ask yourself if you want your company to be another character in the spanning epic of the brown paper bag.

Brown paper bags have been a part of American culture since the 1800s. The structure is still updated and redesigned to meet the growing needs of the public. Brown kraft paper bags became so common that the term worked its way into common expressions and eventually came to symbolize an entire class of people. Today, you can tap into the history and perception of the brown paper bags with our kraft paper packaging bags.


The History of the Brown Paper Bag: The Evolution of the Paper Bag


Before mass production machinery, shopkeepers had to make grocery bags by hand. They were responsible for cutting, folding, and pasting together sheets of paper to make the bags their customers needed. This practice went on until 1852 when a man named Francis Wolle invented and patented the "paper bag making machine." His machine could mass-produce brown paper bags. In 1869, he and his brother founded the Union Paper Bag Machine Company, which generated $4 million in income in one year. During this period, the paper bags produced were used in grocery stores predominately, as well as butchers and pharmacies.

The History of the Brown Paper Bag: Eastern Paper Bag Company Machine

Wolle’s design was much superior to the folded paper technique that was employed prior. However, it still had room for improvement. Margaret Eloise Knight founded the Eastern Paper Bag Company in 1870. She was notable for her invention of the flat-bottomed paper bag. The flat bottom made it easier to fill the bags and allowed them to store more. Knight has been called the most famous 19th-century woman inventor. Margret grew up and became educated in Manchester, New Hampshire. As a child, she preferred "a jack-knife, a gimlet, and pieces of wood" to dolls. She made toys for her brothers and became famous for her kite and sleds, which all the boys in town envied. She proposed a new way to put together paper bags, which included a square-shaped bottom gusset that allowed the bag to expand. You can see the results of her invention in our bottom gusseted StandStrong™ bags. Without Margret, such bags may have never existed. She invented this design while working in a paper-bag factory around 1870.

Margret’s new design was innovative during the time of its conception. While Margret was applying for the patent for the machinery that produced the bags, a failed inventor by the name of Charles F. Annan saw her blueprints and then applied for a patent in his name, but based on Knight's idea. When Knight learned of Annan's action, she took him to court. Annan assumed that the court would not believe that a woman would be capable of understanding the mechanisms and processes of the machinery. However, her sketches, notes, testimony, and journal entries convinced the court that she was the true inventor. Margret’s research extensively refined the mechanisms needed to produce the bags, and her knowledge in the field of packaging design added tremendously to the evolution of the brown paper bag.

The History of the Brown Paper Bag: Luther Crowell Machine

Knight’s design would later be improved even further by other inventors. Luther Crowell, in 1872, designed a similar style of a brown paper bag, but his featured an accordion-style side gusseting that can be seen in our side-gusseted bags. His brown paper bag also featured the now distinct zigzag pattern at the top. Charles Stilwell, in 1883, was granted a patent for a self-standing grocery bag which could stand upright while it was empty. He named his invention S.O.S. or the Self-Opening Sack, because of the bag's ability to remain to stand and open without the person's assistance. This ability to stand up made filling these grocery bags much more efficient, as the packer no longer needed to prop the bag up with one hand while they were filling the bags.

While it was easier to fill the bags with the new gusset design, they were still hard to carry. In the early 1900s, Walter Deubener and his wife, Lydia, owned and operated the S. S. Kruesge grocery store on Seventh Street in downtown St. Paul. Walter noticed that his customers were having a difficult time carrying their groceries by hand. Deubener then began experimenting with ways to get around the problem. He noticed that the customers were limited in the amount that they could buy because there wasn’t an efficient way to carry the bags when they were filled. After a few months of experimentation, he created a new design. He started with an ordinary paper sack, punched holes near the top and bottom, and then reinforced the bottom with string. He then ran the string through holes in the side of the bag and over the top to create handles. These new bags could hold over 20 pounds of canned goods. Walter and his wife made 50 bags that first day and offered them to their customers for $.05 each. The bags sold out before noon that day. Eventually, the couple patented the bag and moved fulltime into the packaging bag industry. You can see an evolution of the Deubener’s design in our StandStrong™ bags with handles.

The History of the Brown Paper Bag: Deubener Grocery Bag

Around 1965, plastic bags enter the game, and by the 1980s, they overtake the paper bag as the preferred shopping bag for grocery stores and more. Plastic bags reign for a few decades after that, but as we know today, plastic waste is out of control. 300 million plastic bags every year end up in the Atlantic Ocean. Many states have since banned single-use plastic and switched back to paper bags. Or at least, they were trying to. The switch back to paper was thwarted by COVID-19. Businesses were already losing money by switching to the more expensive paper bags. Pile on the chaos of a pandemic and most businesses decided to ignore the new laws and continue using plastic. Many grocery stores had a large stock of bags that they still had to unload. Plastic is seen as more sterile to the general public. Single-use plastic increased in popularity following the pandemic.

As things gradually settle down, paper is coming back. Most take out restaurants like Shake Shack, McDonald's, Chipotle, and Panera are opting for paper bags for their carry out orders. Paper straws are also ramping up in popularity. Governments are cracking down on plastic waste, and some experts are theorizing that by 2025, all restaurants will require to limit their plastic production. Some may completely ban plastic, meaning that paper is going to steal the crown back from its longtime adversary. The brown paper bag is coming back in style, and will be the bag of the future.

 The History of the Brown Paper Bag: Shake Shack Take Out Bag The History of the Brown Paper Bag: Panera Bread Take Out Bag


The History of the Brown Paper Bag: Brown Baggers


The classic brown paper bag as we know it calls to mind a collage of pictures. The most immediate picture is the brown sack lunch being packed by children and carried to school. The contents? Perhaps peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a bag of fruit snacks, chips, an apple, and a juice box. The American brown paper lunch paints a nostalgic image for most of us who were fortunate enough to have a lunch packed for us. Around one-third of "brown baggers" are children. The other two thirds? The working class and blue-collar adults. The choice to use paper bags over plastic containers is made by the environmentally conscious, as paper decomposes much faster. However, when considering deforestation, as well as the machinery and factories needed to turn trees into paper, you can see how neither option is perfect. However, paper gives the appearance of being environmentally friendly, and that is the most important thing. 

The History of the Brown Paper Bag: Brown Lunch Bags

These so-called brown baggers represent an entire portion of the population that opts to bring lunch to work rather than buy from stores or the company cafeteria. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary in 1950, described a Brown-Bagger as ''one who carries his lunch to work in a brown bag,'' thereby exhibiting frugality toward both money and time. To this definition, we can add environmental sensitivity. While the quintessential brown bagger may seem to be a factory worker eating a ham sandwich on a two by four, David Lyon, a marketing specialist from 1996, described how brown baggers are rather upscale. Compared with the rest of the population, Mr. Lyon said, twice as many brown baggers have family incomes over $30,000. Adjusting for inflation, that’s an annual income of around $60,000. Most brown baggers have attended college, and of all the brown baggers in the country, only 25 percent work in factories. Lyon found that brown baggers say they save an average of $1.80 a day by carrying their lunch, which, based on his estimate of 6.5 billion sack lunches a year, means a saving of $11.7 billion.

The History of the Brown Paper Bag: Brown Bagger Lunch Bags

David Lyon’s Brown Bag Institute interviews brown baggers to learn their eating habits and food preferences. The Brown Bag Institute started by selling this information to companies like Swift, Carnation, General Mills, and American Can. Lyon started by interviewing 400 people in 10 cities around the country, asking what they ate for lunch. In early 1981 he sent out the ''The Brown-Bag Report.'' By September 1981, Mr. Lyon had signed four clients at $20,000 each. General Foods, Beatrice Corporation, and Nabisco Brands were clients for the Brown Bag Institute. Each client received a quarterly report based on a random nationwide telephone survey of 1,500 people. The reports include one section of ''core data'' of general market development, one section of ''category and brand analysis'' in areas such as ''salty snacks'' or ''sandwich fillings'' and one question of the client's choice. The answers to these questions are broken down by demographics. Today, you can find similar resource guides online, or you can monitor larger food companies and copy what they are doing. Alternatively, you can copy what Lyon did, and ask the brown baggers around you what they are having for lunch. 


The History of the Brown Paper Bag: Capturing the Same Image


While the brown paper bag is already iconic, certain variations have become remembered in their own way. Bloomingdales is notorious for its Big Brown bags and Medium Brown shopping bags. The Big Brown was introduced in 1973. The small, medium, and big brown bags were designed by Massimo Vignelli, who also designed the store’s logotype. The first introduced was the Big Brown Bag, which was made to accommodate the increasingly larger pillows and blankets that were becoming popular. The little brown bag was for cosmetics and accessories. Vignelli’s simple design may not have been expected to last 47 years, but the smooth rounded letters, uncomplicated text, and classic aesthetic have allowed the shopping bag to last.

The History of the Brown Paper Bag: Bloomingdale's Shopping Bags

The ingrained perception of the brown paper bag is firmly glued into the brains of most people. It is hard to fight against our preconceived notions of brown packaging. Some brands are working with this pre-made view to aid in their company's image. Consider UPS.

The History of the Brown Paper Bag: UPS Logo

The History of the Brown Paper Bag: UPS Boxes

While not brown paper, the UPS brand works with the brown cardboard of the parcels they transport and reflects it in the yellow and dark brown of their logo. The brown in the UPS logo represents professionalism and stability. Just as the brown paper bag is a stable carrying case that has lasted through the ages, so too is UPS. Or that's what they want you to think. UPS identifies so heavily with the brown ideal, their tagline used to be "What can brown do for you? This was later changed. Additionally, the brown made it possible for the UPS trucks to traverse dirt roads and muddy environments without the truck coming away looking dirty. The earthiness of the color brown lets it preserve the professionalism of the company in all kinds of conditions. View our Mahogany Brown QuickQlick™ Bags for packaging that captures that same rugged solidity as UPS. 

The classic brown paper bags invokes more ideas than just nostalgia and durability. During the fall season, paper bags bring to mind apple orchards, and rustic fallen leave coated vistas. There is a natural feeling to brown paper. Compare meat packaged in plastic and white Styrofoam from a grocery store to meat wrapped in brown paper from a butcher. Which of those two products is more premium? Obviously, it's the brown paper wrapped meat. The packaging denotes the quality of the meat and the organic nature of it. Since paper is also organic, it is great to use for foods. The rustic charm that paper brings adds a clean and rustic feeling to food products.


The History of the Brown Paper Bag: Evolved Brown Paper Bags


The History of the Brown Paper Bag: QQ Studio Brown Bags

The material we use for our brown paper bags is called kraft paper, named after the German word denoting power, force, and strength. You can expect these same qualities from our bags. Alternative materials can be used in paper bags, such as white cardboard, or plastic-lined paper. Our bags are inspired by the classic aesthetics of the brown paper bag, but add new innovative technology to improve on them. Take a look at our Krafty Brown Bottle Shaped Bags. These milk bottle-shaped bags have an interior foil lining that makes them capable of holding wet or greasy items without the outside staining. If you have ever taken home a paper bag from a burger joint, you know how the paper darkens and discolor from the grease. This same foil lining is found in our Krafty Brown Stand Strong™ bags. The interior foil lining also makes these pouches ten times as durable as regular paper bags. The high tensile strength of the foil makes the bags able to hold high weights without tearing.

While these two bags are protective, the solid sides limit the ability to display the contents of the bag. For advertising your products, a clear portion is great for showing what’s inside the bag to the customers. If you’re interested in displaying your products, consider our Krafty Brown windowed StandStrong™ bags. These pouches have a translucent poly-plastic window that lets the beauty of your products come out loud and proud. These pouches are far superior to the archaic bottom gusseted bags. The gusset used in these StandStrong™ pouches can hold high quantities and heavyweights while allowing the bags to stand upright on flat surfaces.

The History of the Brown Paper Bag: QQ Studio Kraft Bags with a Spin

If you want an unlined kraft paper bag, consider our Half Krafty Brown QuickQlick™ pouches. These bags combine the two competing materials, plastic and paper, together in one pouch. From the paper, you get the rustic look and natural charm. From the plastic, you get the visibility and display properties. The permeable paper lets the bags breathe slightly, without fully exposing the product to the air. These pouches also feature a round hang hole that lets the pouches be displayed on wire racks, hooks, and pegboards.


Wrapping Up

The brown paper bag has had a long and colorful history. As you have learned, the modern paper bag that we are familiar with today was the result of several innovative designers who refined the technology. It began simply as folded paper, and now we see the many iterations and models that sprang from this seed. Nobody knows how the classic kraft bag will continue to evolve, but you can see the most modern designs now on the kraft section of our website. Yet, no matter how advanced this design becomes, it will always evoke that same rustic nostalgia that has continued to sustain it.

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