A brief history of plastic & paper bags

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

People switched away from using cloth bags when paper bags were invented.  Paper bags allowed stores to provide a value added service to customers by giving out free paper bags which was supposed to make 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 home and storage must happen sooner or later. Otherwise our single-use habits jeopardize our future.






  1. Plastics in Your Body
  2. Politics of Paper
  3. ReUsing Vs. Single-Use

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  times and it was way before there was any consciousness around the environmental impact of paper usage.

The grocery store my parents shopped at got 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!  Slowly, bit by bit, they infiltrated plastic bags until they became the norm.

These days, I usually check out at the self-checkout line at my grocery store. I have committed to never accepting a plastic or paper grocery bag at the store. This means I actually have to push aside the already open plastic bags, lined up in each checkout line to make room to put down my groceries.  Plastic bags are obnoxiously difficult to avoid.

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? For most of history, plastic bags never existed and people certainly didn't use them.  Why do we feel like we can't ive without them now?

This might seem like a stupid question but it's answer sheds a lot of light on our current values: convenience, getting things done, hurrying up and moving faster, trying to cut corners so we're not so stressed and sadly - not considering the impact of any of these actions on ourselves and the environment.

In a country where we have unlimited choices, let's use that priviledge wisely and choose reusable bags over plastic and paper. This small, concerted effort can change your life in more ways than you expect.



We are a woman-owned business whose vision is two-fold: to make a difference through what we do and how we do it. It is not easy to better our selves or our world, but we know the two go hand in hand. Our bags have taken us to the very brink of an ultimate question: what is true personal and planetary sustainability and what changes do we need to make to get from here to there? We hope to inspire such a journey of questioning for others as we’re all in the same boat together. (Learn more)


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