I’m an inveterate fan of the social science commentator Shankar Vedantam. His stories center around the things we do and why we seem to do them. They are all backed by
research findings and help us understand the deeper meanings and motivations behind our actions and choices. Today’s commentary was on the apparent contradiction in the
behavior of people who carry their purchases in reusable shopping bags.
That got me wondering. How did something as prosaic and ubiquitous as the disposable shopping bag come about anyway? I found a surprising number of sites with information about the history of these indispensable aids to modern consumerism.
Although the first recorded use of a paper grocery bag reaches back to around 1630 CE their real popularity and practicality took off after the industrial revolution. Before
then shopping was either carried by hand, in baskets, or in canvas bags with straps or handles. Of course there was no such thing as modern packaging. Most goods at the time, if packaged at all, were generally wrapped by the seller in paper and tied with string. The porous nature of the packaging along with physical pressure of carrying all one’s goods along with one’s groceries generally lead to unhygienic results. Additionally, there was a lack of understanding about microbial contamination. Public sanitation particularly well developed. These factors combined with the lack of ready facilities for easy washing meant that most items used in the daily transporting of goods were quite literally biological time bombs just waiting to go off.
Around 1852 a Pennsylvania school teacher named Francis Wolfe and his brother invented the first practical paper shopping bag. It was subsequently improved upon by Margaret Knight who, while working at a paper bag factory, invented a machine which allowed bags to have a rectangular, flat bottom to them. By the 1870s paper bags were quite in evidence and generally looked upon as a very desirable hygenic substitute for the traditional canvas bag. They were so desirable that initially, retailers charged customers for their use.
The next evolutionary step came shortly after the turn of the 20th century when the owner of a small Minnesota grocery store named Walter H. Deubener sought a way to improve the volume of sales in his establishment. He noticed that people tended to limit the volume of their purchases to what they could carry in their arms. His genius idea was to make bags reinforced by string which also formed convenient handles. Each one of these new bags could safely hold up to 75 pounds of groceries. Needless to say, this was not the genius part of the idea. No, it was the fact that the bags, now equipped with string handles, allowed shoppers to carry more than one bag in each hand.
Since wood pulp, string, glue and water were all cheap commodities in the early to mid 20th century, the paper bag in that iteration reigned supreme for a half century or
more. However, by the 1950s wood pulp products were becoming increasingly expensive. Retailers did not want to return to the days of limited buying so they cast about for a ready replacement. Enter the plastic disposable bag. It was lighter, cheaper (due to the low cost of oil as compared to wood pulp) easier to manufacture, and easier to store. The major retail and grocery chains of JC Penney, Sears, and Kroger were among the first to introduce plastic shopping bags in 1975. Which pretty much brings us to the current day.
Like everything else, there are both benefits and consequences to every action or invention. In less than 40 years since its introduction, the disposable plastic handle bag has given rise to concerns about its possible detrimental effects on marine life, wildlife, landfill volume, oil consumption, etc.. A growing movement for the return of reusable bags gained traction. Now we see retailers giving a reusable bag refund to customers. Several cities have outlawed the use of single use plastic bags. There are even some ‘reusable’ heavy plastic bags given out by a limited number of retailers. Of course, there are displays of low cost reusable bags near the check out stands in most major grocers as well as several smaller vendors.
And so the wheel has turned full cycle. Fortunately, we now understand the role microbes play in illness and we have ready methods of regularly cleaning and sanitizing our bags. But time has had its ironic joke on us. We’re back to where we started over a century and a half ago. We’re putting our purchases into reusable canvas bags. Maybe that’s the true lesson of progress.