The big brown paper bag has a long, interesting history.
Brown paper bags have become a fixture in our daily lives: we use them to carry groceries home, tote our department store purchases, and pack our kids’ lunches. Retailers use them as a blank canvas for their branded product packaging. Creative trick-or-treaters even wear them as masks for Halloween. It’s easy to forget that someone, long ago, had to invent them!
As with the best inventions, the paper bag filled a need people didn’t know they had. Before the paper bag, baskets, bowls, and other containers were the main storage solution in every home and store. You can imagine, then, that the creation of a convenient, disposable container was revolutionary. Business owners could stock stacks of these bags at their stores, and their low cost and ease of use made them widely accessible for shoppers of even modest means.
So, just how did this seemingly ordinary invention earn its place in the hearts (and hands) of the everyday consumer? A glimpse back at the history and evolution of the paper bag offers a clue.
The Innovators Who Gave us the Paper Bag
For centuries, sacks made of jute, canvas, and burlap were the primary method of holding and moving goods throughout the British Empire. The main benefit of these materials was their sturdy, durable nature, but their production proved both time-consuming and expensive. Paper, on the other hand, could be produced at a much lower cost, and soon became the preeminent material for portable bags along trade routes.
Since its introduction in the 1800s, the paper bag has undergone numerous upgrades thanks to a few clever innovators. In 1852, Francis Wolle invented the first machine to mass-produce paper bags. While Wolle’s paper bag looked more like a large mailing envelope than the grocery store mainstay we know today (and thus could only be used to tote small objects and documents), his machine was the catalyst for the mainstream use of paper packaging.
The next important step forward in the design of the paper bag came from Margaret Knight, a prolific inventor then working for the Columbia Paper Bag Company. There, she realized that square-bottomed bags, rather than Wolle’s envelope design, would be more practical and efficient to use. She created her paper-bag making machine in an industrial shop, paving the way for the widespread commercial use of paper bags. Her machine proved so profitable that she would go on to found her own company, the Eastern Paper Bag Company. When you bring food home from the supermarket or purchase a new outfit from the department store, you’re enjoying the fruits of Knight’s labor.
These square-bottomed bags were still missing a classic component of the paper bag that we know and love today: pleated sides. We can thank Charles Stillwell for this addition, which made the bags foldable and thus easier to store. A mechanical engineer by trade, Stillwell’s design is commonly known as the S.O.S. bag, or “self-opening sacks.”
But wait — there’s more! In 1918, two St. Paul grocers by the names of Lydia and Walter Deubener came up with an idea for yet another improvement to the original design. By punching holes into the sides of paper bags and attaching a string that doubled as a handle and bottom reinforcement, the Deubeners found that customers could carry almost 20 pounds of food in each bag. At a time when cash-and-carry groceries were replacing home delivery, this proved a crucial innovation.
What Paper Bags Are Made Of
So just what materials is a paper bag actually composed of? The most popular material for paper bags is Kraft paper, which is manufactured from wood chips. Originally conceived by a German chemist by the name of Carl F. Dahl in 1879, the process for manufacturing Kraft paper is as follows: the wood chips are exposed to intense heat, which breaks them down into solid pulp and byproducts. Then the pulp is screened, washed, and bleached, taking its final form as the brown paper we all recognize. This pulping process makes Kraft paper particularly strong (hence its name, which is German for “strength”), and thus ideal for carrying heavy loads.
What Determines How Much A Paper Bag Can Hold?
Of course, there’s more to picking the perfect paper bag than just the material. Particularly if you need to carry bulky or heavy items, there are a few other qualities to consider when selecting the product that will best serve your needs:
Paper Basis Weight
Also known as grammage, the paper basis weight is a measure of how dense paper is, in pounds, related to reams of 500. The higher the number, the denser and heavier the paper.
A gusset is a strengthened area where material has been added to reinforce the bag. Gusseted paper bags can accommodate heavier items and are less likely to break.
Made by twisting natural Kraft paper into cords and then gluing those cords to the insides of the paper bag, twist handles are typically used with gussets to increase the weight a bag can carry.
Square-Bottomed vs. Envelope-Style
While Wolle’s envelope-style bag was later improved upon, it’s still very useful for certain businesses and widely used in our postal system. If you’re looking to accommodate larger items, Knight’s square-bottomed paper bag may be a better fit for your needs.
A Style for Every Need: The Many Types of Paper Bags
The design of the paper bag has come a long way since Francis Wolle, continuing to evolve to meet consumer demands for a more streamlined, easy-to-use product. Here’s a taste of the wide selection of paper bags that are available for business or personal use:
Designed by Stillwell, S.O.S. bags stand on their own while items are loaded into them. These bags are school lunch favorites, known for their iconic Kraft brown tint, though they can be dyed a variety of colors.
Pinch-Bottom Design Bags
With open-mouth designs, pinch-bottom paper bags stay open just as S.O.S. bags do, but their base features a pointed seal similar to an envelope. These bags are widely used for baked goods and other food products.
Merchandise bags are usually pinch-bottom paper bags and can be used to hold everything from craft supplies to baked goods and candy. Merchandise bags are available in natural Kraft, bleached white, and a variety of colors.
For added sophistication, the Euro Tote (or its cousin, the wine bag) comes decked out with printed patterns, embellished glitter, corded handles, and lined interiors. This bag is popular for gift-giving and special packaging at retail outlets and can be outfitted with your brand’s logo through a custom printing process.
Celebrate a birthday or special occasion with an attractive, fun party bag filled with candy, mementos, or small toys.
Francis Wolle’s original envelope-style bag is still used today to protect mailed documents or other small items.
For the environmentally minded, the Kraft bag is an obvious choice. These bags are generally composed of anywhere from 40% to 100% recycled materials.
The Paper Bag Continues to Make Waves
Throughout its history, the paper bag has passed from one innovator to another, improved again and again to make it easier to use and cheaper to produce. For a few savvy retailers, however, the paper bag represented more than just a convenience for customers: it has also become a highly visible (and highly lucrative) marketing asset.
Bloomingdale’s, for example, breathed new life into the classic with its take, known simply as the “Big Brown Bag.” Marvin S. Traub’s twist on the Kraft bag was simple, attractive, and iconic, and its creation transformed the department store into the behemoth it is today. Meanwhile, Apple opted for a sleek, white version embossed with the company’s iconic logo (so groundbreaking was the design, they ventured, that it deserved its own patent).
Even as plastic floods the market, paper bags have stayed the course and proven their value as a dependable, cost-effective, and customizable solution for small businesses and behemoths alike. Feeling inspired? Create your own customized paper bags with Paper Mart today!