When and why did people start using paper and plastic bags?

People switched from using cloth bags to using paper bags when paper bags were invented because they were cheaper for stores and provided a value added service to consumers which made shopping easier and more convenient.

Later, when plastic bags were invented stores switched to those because they were even cheaper than paper. 

History of the 1st Paper Bags

  • 1852: First machine for making paper bags by Francis Wolle.
  • 1870: Invention of the first square bottom paper bag machine by Margaret Knight.
  • 1912: First paper shopping bag with handles

Margaret Knight's story is too interesting to leave out:

Margaret Knight invented a device to cut, fold and paste bag bottoms.

Before she could place the patent, a man named Charles Annan tried to steal and patent her idea after seeing her machine. Knight, 33 at the time, filed a patent interference suit against him.

His defense was that because Knight was a woman she could not possibly understand the mechanical complexities of the machine. But, due to her careful notes, diary entries, samples and expertise the court ruled in her favor.

Margaret Knight is considered the most famous 19th-century woman inventor, and received 26 patents for such diverse items as a window frame and sash, machinery for cutting shoe soles, and improvements to internal combustion engines.

History of the 1st Plastic Bags:

  • 1957: First plastic bag is invented, the sandwich bag.
  • 1969: Bread and produce are sold in plastic and the first garbage is collected in plastic bags in New York City.
  • 1974: Retail stores begin switching to plastic shopping bags.
  • 1977: Grocers begin using plastic bags at checkout lanes and Retail giants Sears and JC Penney are the first department stores to use plastic bags.
  • 1996: More than eight out of every 10 bags used is plastic.
  • Today: 60,000 plastic bags are used in the US every five seconds.

 Plastic and paper have not been around long enough to warrant their destructive impact on the earth. Switching to natural, biodegradable, and renewable sources of bags for carry and storage must happen sooner or later. Otherwise our single-use habits jeopardize our future.







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 I'm old enough to remember when plastic grocery bags started being offered at the checkout line in grocery stores.

I remember that my parents didn't like them at all. The plastic bags seemed flimsy and they could hardly hold anything. It seemed pointless to walk out of the store carrying 10 or more little plastic bags with only a few items in each one!

So when the grocery clerk asked us if we wanted paper or plastic, the obvious choice was paper. At least with paper it was possible to walk out of the store with just a few bags. Plus we reused the paper at home many, many times.

The grocery store my parents shopped in solved the problem of getting their customers to accept the change to plastic grocery bags by starting to have their checkout baggers put the brown paper bag inside a plastic grocery bag! And slowly, bit by bit, the plastic bag became the norm.

Today, most of the time, I check out at a self-checkout line at my grocery store. I have committed to never accepting a plastic or paper grocery bag at the store. So I have to push aside the already open plastic bags, lined up in each checkout line, in order to put my groceries down. It's actually much more difficult not to use the plastic bags!

So in a country where we believe that we have unlimited choices do we really have as much choice as we think? Are we using that choice?

Plastic bags have been around for such a short period of time and yet they appear to be deeply part of our culture. Why is this? Before people had stores to go to, much less a choice of bags, how did they get their food?

This might seem like a stupid question but it's a question worth thinking about.