From the local greengrocers or department stores, paper bags have documented our social history, the rise and fall of retail markets, changes in culture and fashion, and even royal weddings or coronations. A new book from Tim Sumner, To Have and To Hold: A Visual Collection of Paper Bag Ephemera From a Bygone Age, celebrates and vouches for this common, everyday item’s importance.
The book stems from 50-plus years of collecting and a combination of several archives.
Current forecasts show that the project will fail to meet its Kickstarter goal, yet Sumner promises it will be published in any case—if only for documenting the ubiquitous role these artifacts play in our lives. Far be it from me to be dismissive of any ephemera collection; I admit to having a half-dozen envelopes filled with unused airplane sick bags and hotel laundry bags. Sumner’s devotion to his theme should be celebrated. So below I’ve bagged him with questions about how this collection started, and where it will go.
What inspired you to start collecting paper bags?
My inspiration for collecting paper bag ephemera came around a decade ago from my then-university tutor Andy Bainbridge pointing me in the direction of the university ephemera archive, which had a paper bag collection. Since then I have been collecting bags from all over the world, with family members passing them on to me or grabbing the odd one from eBay.
Is there a community of fellow baggers?
To be honest, I don’t think there is, really. If there are more people out there, perhaps we unite and come up with a better name than “baggers,” but I’ll take that for now. Although, being part of the Ephemera Society has been a great help, as members have come forward and passed on collections or individual bags to me.
I’ve collected dozens of vintage coffee bags. Does that qualify as a paper bag or a “container”?
I would say it does count as a paper bag. I have a number of old coffee bags and a few old used flour bags in the collection, even some more bizarre and “wonderful” things like airline sick bags or small packet bags for snuff.
What is the origin, or at least how far back does your collection go?
The origin of the paper bag, from what I know, is from about the 1850s; the oldest bag I have in my collection is from around that period, which was kindly donated for use in the book by Mitch Fraas of the University of Pennsylvania Libraries (although it is a digital scan). The oldest physical bag in my collection is from the early 1900s, which is a Walls ice cream bag, but that being said it is very difficult to date bags, so some could be older than that, I suppose.
Is there an aesthetic curatorial criteria, or do you embrace all printed bags.
I embrace all bags, big and small. As the collection increases in size, I would say I tend to be more selective on the curation of new additions. I know by memory pretty much all of the bags in the collection, and I tend to hunt for certain bags (e.g., old V&A bags), so I have a V&A collection within the collection (if that makes sense).
What is the artistic, cultural and/or sociological underpinning for your cache?
In terms of the social history of the collection, the bags themselves are great markers for that as they are used to commemorate certain points in time or major events like the coronation of kings and/or queens, royal marriages, or to communicate things in the midst of World War I. Culturally, they were forever changing, whether that’s from black and white to color, illustration styles developing or the typography used. As the decades rolled on, they always reflected the world around them.
Do you have any concerns about paper bags and the environment?
Well, the environment is a concern generally for myself, and looking at the figures, paper bags are more environmentally friendly than their single-use plastic counterparts if they are re-used a handle full of times, but it does take more than four times as much energy to create a paper bag than that of a single-use plastic one (according to the BBC). Then you get into durability and a whole host of other questions, so I guess it’s a double-edged sword—even cotton bags you have to use over 130 times to make their use environmentally friendly, which came as a shock to me.
But as an archive of our relatively recent consumer past, I think they are very poignant and should be celebrated.
What’s next? Are there more bags to collect?
There are always more bags to collect. I have [just] been contacted by another collector who is looking to pass on his collection to me, continuing the archive of high-street history.
Next for me, I am looking to produce the best of this eclectic collection into a book in 2022; there is something nice about placing ephemera into a permanent record that will stay with us for the next 100 years, and much more hopefully. After that, who knows—maybe an exhibition at the Design Museum (we can hope).