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The Secret Feminist History of Brown Paper Bags

Tracing the connection between a ubiquitous paper product and the women’s liberation moment

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Few things are as useful as the paper bag. In the United States, people use (and reuse) 10 billion of them every year. Who among us has gotten through life, likely as a child, without opening up a brown paper bag filled with a sandwich, juice box, and a piece of fruit? Or, later in life, enjoyed an alcoholic beverage in a public place with the illegal item safely ensconced inside a bag?

But paper bags have been around for so long, and in so many forms, that few have ever stopped to wonder where they came from in the first place. Even fewer know that paper bags were involved in not one but two feminist crusades.

Paper bags have been with us for generations. As early as 1937, an article in the New York Times described the “model school lunch” as being packed in “old-time brown paper bags and collapsible or round-top lunch kits.” But where there’s a model lunch, there are other lunches failing to make the grade.

Since the earliest years of subsidized lunches, people have disagreed on what items make up a proper lunch, whether lunches should be eaten at home, and, lately, why Mom is still so often the one getting lunch together for the kids. In the first half of the 20th century, the idea that good parents gave their kids hot meals was so persistent that it took experts to convince Americans a cold lunch could be just as wholesome. In the 1950s, the USDA went on the record to say that the nation just needed to serve a good lunch, at any temperature, to America’s youth.

In cities, the question of whether kids should be allowed to bring lunch to school (rather than eating in the cafeteria) was often without controversy. As early as the 1920s, schools in poorer rural areas whose students were often underfed were happy to establish lunch programs in the classroom. But in some more affluent communities, it was expected that Mom would stay home and be there with lunch waiting when the kids came home for a midday break.

In 1973, the New York Times reported on a war being waged in Cedar Grove, New Jersey, over lunch. Traditionally, the town’s North End Elementary School, like many others, wanted children to be sent home in the middle of the day so they could enjoy a hot lunch at home. In Cedar Grove, however, mothers were now “demanding brown-bag lunch programs,” reporter Georgia Dullea wrote. Twenty mothers, infuriated by the at-home lunch policy, sent their kids to school with brown-bag lunches. Though they were warned their children would receive consequences for bringing a bag lunch, they repeated this action the next day, too. Six children were suspended.

Anna Mae Shepherd, a lawyer who represented these women, told the New York Times, “It’s a sex equality issue, a test of whether the system isn’t set up to ensure that a woman stays in the kitchen.” Whether this lunch battle was resolved quickly or not is a mystery. This is the last time the school lunches at North End Elementary appeared in the Times or other archived publications. Today, the elementary school offers a gourmet catering service for student lunches, and bringing a bag lunch is no longer a suspendible offense.

In 1975, only 44 percent of mothers had jobs outside the home. Responsibilities that kept them from getting jobs would have made it difficult for the rate of labor-force participation for mothers to climb to the 70 percent that it’s reached in this decade. Today, it would be rare for a school to send students home for a hot lunch, and with a national school-lunch program, even packing bagged lunches is no longer a necessity. Paper bags, in other words, 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.

But while paper bags leveled the playing field for some, they also became part of the story of colorism, or discrimination based on the darkness or lightness of skin color. Slavery in the United States ended only a few years before the paper bag became popular in shops: The paper bag didn’t really exist in usable form until 1852, when a Pennsylvania man named Francis Wolle created a machine that could cut and paste paper into an envelope-shaped bag. And in the years following, a history emerges of social groups, churches, sororities, and fraternities in the black community requiring applicants to “pass” a “paper bag test” for inclusion. If an applicant’s skin was lighter than a brown paper bag, they were in. Those with skin too dark to pass were kept out, or, in church, darker-complexioned congregants were sometimes relegated to the back pews.

In Audrey Elisa Kerr’s 2006 book The Paper Bag Principle, she writes about a “paper bag party” at the historically black Howard University where law school graduates only invited a select group of people who were fairer in complexion. Of course, the phenomenon of colorism can be traced back to colonialism and slavery, when lighter-skinned people were given access to better opportunities than their darker-skinned counterparts; its lingering effects are still felt. Research has shown that employers often choose to hire people with light skin over those with more education.

Before it was wielded as a weapon of colorism, before it made it to the lunchroom — or even into the shape of a bag — paper itself was used in the kitchen for hundreds of years. According to Mary Ellen Snodgrass’s Encyclopedia of Kitchen History, Renaissance cooks grilled beef in paper. Later on, women used paper while carving meat at the table “to improve their grip and ward off slips of the knife.” Yet the very invention of the paper bag was also a milestone for women.

Wolle’s paper bag, invented in the 1850s, was unfortunately not very strong, and wasn’t terribly useful for carrying items that weren’t flat. (Imagine trying to stuff a basketball or even an armful of groceries into a big envelope.) Despite efforts to improve on the bag, a better design — and machine — wasn’t created until 1871, when Margaret Knight patented a machine that made the flat-bottomed paper bag.

Born in 1838, Knight had an inventive streak that was apparent from a young age. In an article by muckraking journalist Ida Tarbell titled “Women as Inventors,” published in 1887, Knight wrote:, “As a child I never cared for things that girls usually do: dolls never possessed any charms for me.” People regularly called her a tomboy, but the neighborhood kids (including her own brothers) often came to her with requests for toys, kites, and even sleds. “My sleds were the envy and admiration of all the boys in town,” she remarked. “I’m only surprised I couldn’t have had as good a chance as a boy and been put to my trade regularly.”

A paper bag factory worker in the 1930s.
Getty/Margaret Bourke-White

Knight grew up poor and when she was 12, Margaret, her mother, and her two brothers all worked in a textile mill in New Hampshire. One day a shuttle flew off a loom, hitting someone in the head and injuring them. Knight tinkered in her journal until she invented a metal guard for the looms. She brought it to the machine shop, which added her safety feature to all the factory’s looms. Unsurprisingly, she didn’t receive any compensation for this invention.

Unmarried and nearing 30, Knight became a low-level employee of the Columbia Paper Bag Company, where she became aware of efforts to make a machine that could whip up bags with flat bottoms. Within half a year, she had created a working wooden prototype. In 1868, she ordered an iron version from a machine shop in Boston. Finally ready to apply for a patent so she could profit off her work, she was surprised to find out that someone else had already received a patent for exactly the same machine.

History is unclear on whether Charles F. Annan was an employee of one of the machine shops or simply walked in and viewed the machine. Despite her low income, Knight paid $100 a day to hire a patent attorney to prove Annan was a fraud and she was the machine’s inventor. In the official Decision of the Commissioner of Patents, it was noted that Knight “has introduced voluminous testimony and has stated fully the history of her invention from its first inception down to the present time.” In contrast, Annan’s strategy was to try and convince the judge that there was no way a woman, especially an informally educated one like Knight, could have built such a complex piece of machinery.

Ultimately, the judge found in Knight’s favor. On July 11, 1871, she became one of the first women to receive a patent. Knight went on to patent at least 27 inventions (as well as many more that were never officially filed) and became something of a media sensation. She was one of the first women to be able to not only create a work of art or machinery but to also put her full name on it — though “M.E. Knight” appears on much of the official patent documentation, she also clearly wrote “Margaret” out in full. Knight was a rare role model for women who wanted careers in the male-dominated fields of mechanics and invention. Royalties from her invention made her financially comfortable, but not wealthy. When she died her entire estate was worth $275.05, roughly $6,700 today.

Shopkeepers happily adopted the improvement upon the impractical envelope-shaped paper bag. Other than asking customers to bring in their own containers, there simply weren’t other practical, inexpensive options to give away for free. The flat-bottomed bag (which didn’t have paper handles until the 1990s) could be filled with groceries and make it home without breaking.

It wasn’t until the plastic bag came onto the scene in 1979 that the paper bag had real competition. Suburbanites liked paper bags since they stayed upright in the back of family vehicles, while city dwellers liked the relative ease of carrying items in plastic, the Los Angeles Times reported in 1986. Paper bag manufacturers, hoping to hold onto the grocery bag market — which in the 1980s was worth $600 million a year — highlighted the many uses of recycled paper bags in crafts. Plastics countered by saying their bags could be reused in “17 different ways,” including not-so high-fashion windbreakers made from plastic grocery bags. And plastics won. By the early 2000s, they’d grabbed 80 percent of the grocery market. The main appeal of plastic was that they cost grocers four times less than a paper bag.

Thanks to governments like the one in San Francisco, the first city to ban plastic bags, and those of the numerous liberal cities that followed, paper might have a chance at a comeback. The paper bag’s association with skin color is an ugly part of its history but for many others the lowly bag was a symbol of freedom — from staying home to feed the kids, from gender norms. And it makes sense. Until the late 1970s, when the plastic bag came onto the grocery scene, they were necessary for millions of people dragging home armfuls of groceries or packing a plain sack lunch. Yet like much traditional women’s work, we’ve overlooked their importance entirely. They’re so simple and sturdy that until a handle breaks or a seam splits, we don’t need to notice them.

Even when it’s unthanked, unnoticed, and often undervalued, the paper bag will keep doing its job.

Tove Danovich is a freelance journalist and former New Yorker who now lives in Portland, Oregon. Follow her on Twitter @TKDano. Sara Guindon makes paper cut and painted illustrations. She lives in Toronto.
Editors: Greg Morabito and Erin DeJesus


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