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It’s in the Bag

It's in the BagIt’s In The Bag

By Yona Zeldis McDonough

Heraldic as banners, bright as flags, shopping bags are part of the unending visual parade of city life. Up and down renowned thoroughfares—Madison and Fifth Avenues, Via Veneto and Avenue Montaigne — spans a veritable flotilla of paper shopping bags, bobbing gaily on the arms of busy buyers the world over.

Urbane and understated or witty and whimsical, bags have a language all their own: from the muted elegance of Bottega Veneta’s velvety brown and silver bag with its thick, corded handles, to the raucous rainbow stripes that announce Dylan’s Candy Bar, bags are talking to us, and what they have to say is more fascinating than you might think.

According to Judi Radice, author of THE BEST OF SHOPPING BAG DESIGN, the rise of the shopping bag can be traced to several key social developments: the decline in the number of servants to support a household, the rapid expansion of cities and urban life, and the increased use of public transportation. Nineteenth century shoppers had used the bandbox—an oval or round container made of pasteboard that could be handheld or slipped over arm. Though sturdy, Bandboxes were clunky, which became a problem for shoppers on densely packed city streets. And bandboxes were relatively expensive to produce and difficult to store. So the need for the shopping bag began percolating in the newly industrialized urban centers of both the United States and Europe.

The groundwork for the shopping bag as we know it was laid during the industrial boom of the second half of the 19th century. In 1852, Francis Wolle, an inventor from Jacobsburg, Pennsylvania, created a paper shopping bag using a machine he invented and patented in the United States, and later in France and England. Some years later, in 1870, New England-born Margaret Knight gained an additional patent for a shopping bag machine that produced square-bottomed bags rather than the narrow, envelope-shaped paper bags Wolle had made….

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