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Brown Paper Packages 5 comments

I was coming out of the subway the other evening, around dinnertime, and was nearly bowled over by a tall young man in a rush. He was carrying a plastic grocery bag in one hand, dangling it in the normal manner by its handles, and cradling a package carefully in his other hand. It balanced horizontally across his hand and wrist, wrapped in a brown paper bag. Likely a styrofoam container of take-out that he was being careful not to spill.

It was the brown paper bag that caught my eye. We don’t really live in a brown paper bag society anymore so when they appear, I tend to take notice.

Brown paper bags used to be the default. Ubiquitous. The entire time I was growing up, groceries were carried in heavy brown paper bags, sometimes with logos, sometimes not. You carried them in your arms, like small children, not dangling down by arm-lengthening handles. I wonder what this says about our evolutionary place that we are less inclined to carry things up close to our upper bodies and more comfortable dangling them in bags close to the ground. In what way is “dangling” more convenient than “carrying”?

In our house, brown paper grocery bags were folded and saved up for important duties like “lighting the furnace” or “lighting the garbage pile” or “collecting kindling”. Garbage sorting seems to be a new concept for urban dwellers, but on the farm we were cutting edge. We sorted into metal/glass (for hauling to the dump), non-meat food scraps (for composting, or tilling into the soil, or feeding the pigs), and everything else – paper, plastic and all other refuse – which was burned in the garbage pile. Not really the current standard, but we did have a crude jump on this whole garbage sorting business. The paper bag played a role in getting things into our house, and then getting things out. They do break down nicely when left out in the rain.

In high school, my lunch was packed in a small brown paper bag, probably its least suitable application. They were always breaking, fruit got bruised easily and the bag got soggy and useless if anything leaked. When I hear the term “brown bag lunch” – often the term organizations use for lunchtime workshops for employees – I think of squished sandwiches, licking peanut butter off of saran wrap, and orange peels.

Heavy brown paper bags are excellent sturdy transport for chinese food take-out because you can stack the containers in such a way that they don’t fall over easily. I like the commanding stapling of the folded top of such a package, usually with a receipt or a menu included. I like the stapling, until I impale my index finger on one of them, which almost always happens.

Things can be hidden in brown paper bags. Magazines that you don’t want your neighbours or mail carrier to see … these were famously offered in “plain brown wrappers”.  Alcoholic beverages can be “hidden” in a brown paper bag, although these days an open bottle wrapped in a brown paper bag fairly shouts “THIS ISN”T FRESHIE I’VE GOT HERE!” You can take surprise gifts to friends in a brown paper bag, pulling out the surprise and really revealing it in the moment, rather than having them guess the shape from a less mysterious form-fitting plastic bag.

(Aside: In 1976, Rita Mae Brown published a book of angry funny feminist poetry called “A Plain Brown Rapper”. Angry and funny – that’s our Rita Mae. Plain – hardly.)

Brown paper bags, and packages made from them. Low tech solutions in an increasingly high tech world. More appealing, certainly, than plastic bags and the mess we have made of trying to reduce, re-use and recycle them. There is just something refreshingly simple and almost honest about a brown paper bag. It is what it is. You can use it a few times, and then use it to start a fire without releasing carcinogins, or bury it in the ground where it will break down. Or leave it out in the rain where the same thing will happen. Or tear it up for birds to use to build nests. It is a good thing, the brown paper bag. I’d love to see more of them.

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