I grew up in the brown bag era. When you went to the grocery store you were not asked about your choice for bags - there was only one kind. Everything we purchased came home in a paper bag.
I don't know about you, but I question the benefit of the plastic replacements that we now get so commonly in the same grocery stores. For a while we were asked about the type of bag we preferred, but now those plastic ones take precedence. In most cases the old brown bag has disappeared. You can still purchase small brown bags to carry lunches in.
We always recycled our bags. Grandma kept a container with bags from the grocery store in the back porch. Whenever we were lining a wastebasket or taking something to someone a brown bag came out.
Now, I do the same thing with the plastic bags from the grocery store, but they are a concern for our landfills. I know that plastic does not disintegrate. What happens to all of those bags that go to the landfill? Many of the stores have recycling centers of their own, but that means that you have to take the bags back. It also means that you have to purchase a product to use for the garbage.
On the farm we recycle what we can. The garbage scraps go into the compost pile. Cans are crushed, as are cardboard boxes that we bring home full of product. There is no place for plastic bags. I have some cloth bags, but I only use them part of the time because when I shop for groceries I get quite a few. It is too cumbersome to carry that many bags.
Brown bags had a very humble beginning. In fact, it should be noted that they were a Pennsylvania invention. A man who worked in his father's store in Nazareth, Pa., saw a need and filled it. A patent was issued to Francis Wolle in 1852 for a paper bag making machine.
Wolle and his brother started the Union Paper Bag Machine Co. Improvements to the brown paper bag were made in the 1870s. At that point they added the glued bottom and gusset design, the type that is still around today.
A patent infringement suit came about as another bag company produced the square-bottomed bags. The Columbia Bag Co. was led by Margaret Knight. Her opponent in the case reasoned that "since she was a woman she could not possibly understand the complex working of the machine."
They were messing with the wrong lady. Ms. Knight had kept copious notes. When her diary went to court there was enough information to rule in her favor.
Most of us grew up with the supermarkets. I do recall neighborhood grocery stores, but we went to those only when we needed just a few things or when we did not feel like going all the way to the grocery store. The supermarket boom in the 1930s led to the increase in production of paper grocery bags. Few inventions were more functional than the paper bag. There were 40 billion bags produced annually. It was documented that the Union Bag and Paper Co. used over a million cords of southern pine annually employing more than 500 workers in the main plant.
Americans were at work making a product from a renewable resource that was nature friendly. Today I venture to say that the majority of our bags are produced outside of the United States using foreign labor. Are we recycling the plastic to make the bags? Are we keeping the product out of the landfills?
I not only used the old type paper bags to line wastebaskets, I used them to drain fried foods and to create art projects. When I taught kindergarten we used old paper grocery bags to create Indian buckskin jackets. The kids loved them. After we used them in school they proudly took them home to have many more hours of fun.
Last year when I visited my grandson's art class I saw another use for the paper bags. The art teacher painted the bags with modge-podge to create envelopes to house art projects. The treated surface was quite durable. I used that technique to create art projects for our Sunday school class. The children enjoyed decorating the bags and painting them with modge-podge.
I know there are people who cut the plastic bags and use them to knit purses and bags. More power to them. With all of the plastic that is used these days the knitters can cut and knit for a good long time.
It was in the 1970s the plastic bag came on the scene. I even have a couple of plastic handles that hook through the bags to making carrying them easier. One of the local banks gave them away at the fair.
The paper bag era lasted more than a century, but you will not find their remains among the garbage that is produced annually. Paper bags returned to the Earth when moisture decomposed them.
I leave it up to you to decide if we are better off today than we were before the invention of the plastic bag.
Ann Swanson writes from her home in Russell, Pa.