Who Invented the First Bag (and When)?

who invented the first bag

Everyone uses bags, whether it’s a grocery bag or a purse. There’s virtually no area in life that isn’t helped by the ability to carry things and have a free hand. However, very little is known about the origin of bags. Who invented the bag? When was it?

Bags of some fashion or other have been around since before recorded history. No one knows who first came up with the idea of a soft-sided container to hold things. There are records of bags in every civilization, so the impulse of creating a bag is a universal human experience.

While no one knows who first made a bag or where it originated, several types of bags have specific histories. Before paper and plastic grocery bags, bags were generally made out of fabric and were entirely reusable. The evolution of the bag from prehistory until now is a fascinating one.

Who Was the First Person to Make a Bag?

It’s unknown who made the first bag. Because there are records of bags in every recorded civilization, it’s widely assumed that bags predate record keeping. At some point along the way, a human had more to carry than they could fit in their arms and came up with a makeshift carrier out of animal furs. This might have been the first bag.

Since then, bags have been an unspoken part of history. There’s no need to ask whether certain countries, civilizations, or empires had bags–the answer is yes, they all did. While the style and purpose of bags varied throughout the ages, the basic use remains the same.

Bags are easier to use than solid-sided containers because they will mold to their contents. When prehistoric people started adding makeshift straps, the ease of carrying grew even more. Boxes of some sort probably were also used, but bags are much more intuitive when carrying smaller items.

Who Made the First Paper Bag?

paper bag inventor
Image by Karah Hawkinson from Pixabay

Similar to the first bag in general, the creation of the first paper bag is relatively unknown. At some point, the creation of paper was shaped into a bag and pasted together to hold things. Paper bags quickly became popular as holders for produce and other grocer’s items. There were many other uses for paper bags.

However, the paper bags were not mass-produced. They would be created like other types of paper and individually cut out of sheets. This made them difficult to make and not very common. It was much more common to wrap products in old newspapers or canvas. It wasn’t until much later that bags got mass-produced and became more accessible.

Who Made the First Machine for Paper Bags?

Until the mid-nineteenth century, bags were handmade out of fabric or woven from wool. There were no mass-produced bags of any kind. The Industrial Revolution introduced factories and brought about large-scale production of a wide array of handbags and cloth bags. However, a breakthrough was made with paper bags.

While fabric bags worked well to carry personal items and heavier items, people needed a disposable bag, too. It was necessary to send packages, papers, and books without needing a return bag. Until the 1800s, there was nothing that served this purpose.

In 1852, Francis Wolle created a machine that made paper bags. These bags were shaped like large envelopes and could be sold individually or in packets. They were revolutionary for their time but still had some fundamental issues.

Because of the flat nature of the paper bags, it was difficult to fit many things (or oddly shaped items) inside of them.

Paper Bags Evolve

Less than thirty years later, an answer to this problem emerged. Margaret Knight was a worker at a paper bag factory and a burgeoning inventor. She had already increased the efficiency and safety of her employer, a clothing factory. Now, Knight saw an opportunity to increase the value of paper bags.

Margaret Knight invented the machine that cut and pasted paper into bags with a flat bottom. This innovation drastically increased the number of items the bags could carry and made it easier to store larger things. This invention would change the way paper bags were used forever.

After Margaret Knight patented her machine, paper bags exploded in widespread use and popularity. They are still used for lunches, groceries, gifts, and many other things. Flat-bottomed paper bags might be the second most commonly used bag in the world.

Who Made the First Plastic Bag?

If paper bags are the second most popular kind of bag, there’s only one kind of bag that could outnumber them: the plastic bag. Ubiquitous in grocery stores and homes everywhere, plastic bags are easy to produce and reusable.

plastic bag origins
Image by randy7 from Pixabay

Plastic bags are easier to use than paper bags. The main difference is their shape and durability, and the fact that most plastic bags have handles. The advent of plastic made everything easier to make, even if it harmed the environment. At the beginning of the plastic craze, everything was made of plastic.

The type of plastic used in grocery bags, high-density polyethylene, was first invented in the early twentieth century. The polyethylene had already been around since 1933 when Karl Ziegler and Erhard Holzkamp created a more durable version. They won a Nobel Prize in chemistry for their accomplishment.

High-density polyethylene was the material necessary for many plastic inventions. It was in 1965 that the first plastic bag was invented. Sten Gustaf Thalin created the plastic bag when working at a plastic factory. A few years later, the Mobil gas company created their version.

While it took a few years for grocery stores and convenience stores to accept plastic grocery bags, they were much cheaper to make than plastic bags. Soon, plastic bags became widespread. They could hold many things, came with handles, and were inexpensive to make.

Plastic bags are now universally used as the primary way to bag groceries. It is only in certain places that a reversion to paper or reusable bags is popular. Although plastic is cheap and easy to mass-produce, it doesn’t biodegrade and causes more fossil fuels than ever.

The Hidden Cost of Plastic Bags

As previously mentioned, plastic has been hard on the environment. Because plastic takes years to decompose, the amount of plastic that has been created isn’t going anywhere. It continues to increase as more plastic is made.

When plastic bags were invented, there wasn’t much knowledge of what plastic did to the environment. As it became more popular, environmentalist scientists began to warn the public that plastic wasn’t as harmless as previously believed. In truth, plastic is actually harming the world.

As plastic (slowly) decomposes, it releases chemicals and toxins into the environment. This increases the number of greenhouse gasses in the world. The only benefits of plastic are the ease of production and the cheapness of the material. Otherwise, plastic is detrimental to the environment.

Plastic grocery bags and other plastic bags are no exception to this. There are nearly five trillion plastic bags produced each year worldwide, and it takes one thousand years for each bag to decompose. As these numbers increase, the amount of plastic bags hasn’t gone down.

Paper Versus Plastic Bags

The toll that plastic bags take on the environment is a compelling reason to stick to paper and reusable bags. However, paper bags are also not helpful and often single-use. Paper bags come from trees. Trees take much longer to grow than to be harvested. However, paper bags do decompose very soon.

Plastic is not beneficial for the world, but it has done amazing things for society and the ease of making things. Plastic bags are still in widespread use and are a vital part of the world. While the world needs an alternative to plastic, these bags make up an essential part of the history of bags and the world.

What Other Kinds of Bags Are There?

Of course, there are thousands of various kinds of bags. Paper and plastic are the most common bags for everyday uses, such as grocery and convenience stores. However, other bags are used for different things.

The past few years have seen an increase in reusable grocery bags, taxes on using plastic bags, or regulations on plastic bags. This is because of the negative toll on the environment. Many shoppers are using reusable bags to reduce waste. However, plastic single-use grocery bags are still being mass-produced.

In addition to grocery bags, the world of bags includes things like purses, messenger bags, and even ziplock bags. While there are too many types of bags to list, the invention of the bag was vital.

Final Thoughts

Like many of the necessities of life, no one knows who created the very first bag. Since the advent of paper and plastic bags, humanity’s ability to carry things in disposable ways has increased. Bags are essential to everyday life, and grocery bags are the most common bags available.