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Nostalgic about Brown Paper Bags

Wednesday 27 January 2016 at 5:49 pm.

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for January 21, 2016, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

          It’s crazy, I know, but one of the things I am the most nostalgic about in remembering the good ole days is paper bags.  Coming out of the Great Depression in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s, we valued everything we had and didn’t throw away anything, -- string, rubber bands, paper bags, etc.

          In those days, there was celluloid (the predecessor to plastic), but no plastic; consequently, if you bought groceries, the grocer put them in brown paper bags; if you bought a handful of nails at the lumberyard, you got them in a brown paper bag.  Getting your items in brown paper bags was a kind of lagniappe, as you could save them and use them for many other things.   

          My mother kept used paper bags in the pantry, stacked according to size, and so did my grandmother and my aunts.  If you had to mail a package, you took a large bag, cut it open and that was your package wrap.  Before re-using bags, my grandfather would utilize them as writing surfaces on which to calculate the profit and loss of his farming endeavors.  In those days it seemed normal to me to use old paper bags decorated with columns of additions and subtractions. 

          In the daily ritual of taking your lunch to school, we kids had the choice of taking it in either an empty gallon-size molasses can or in one of those paper bags from the pantry.  I preferred paper bags, because molasses cans looked like molasses cans, which was not a good thing.  Well, of course, brown paper bags looked like brown paper bags, but that was OK, because I liked paper bags – there was something aesthetic about a paper bag!

          My aunt would prepare my uncle’s lunch every day in a brown bag.  My uncle, who easily could have won a prize for frugality in an era when everyone had to be frugal, would use the same bag every day until it literally fell apart and had to be discarded.  He would brag about how many days he would use a particular bag.

          Since wrapping packages with old paper bags, as well as using them as floured surfaces on which to roll out the dough for egg noodles, required cutting the bottoms out of the bags, the bottoms had to be utilized, too.  My mother used them for making quilt patterns.

          Being a nostalgic kind of guy anyway, I have tried to break down my various nostalgias into levels, from high to low, and I concluded long ago that brown paper bags were on the highest end of the spectrum, so much so I even give birthday gifts aesthetically ensconced in brown paper bags (decorated, not with columns of numbers, but with a little art work). 

          So WHY am I so excessively nostalgic about brown paper bags?  I can think of only one answer to that profoundly absurd question?  It harks back to the early days (in the 1930’s) of attending Trinity Lutheran Church in Old Dime Box, Texas, and receiving a brown paper bag full of Christmas delights (candy, fruit and nuts) on Christmas Eve.  The childish rapture of receiving those fantastic brown paper bags, full of Christmas delights, has never left my heart.


         Ray Spitzenberger serves as pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Wallis, after retiring from Wharton County Junior College, where he taught English and speech and served as chairman of Communications and Fine Arts for many years.

One comment

Weldon Mersiovsky

Ray – I am also nostalgic about brown paper bags. I would save them today except we have no use for them anymore – so they go into recycling. Should I save them and ship them to you?

When I was a kid going to school at St Mark’s Lutheran in Houston I packed a lunch, in a brown bag, every day. I was especially fond of the smaller bag whether white or brown that had a bottom of about 4×6 inches. After I emptied in on my desk (we ate in our classrooms) I would carefully fold it up and put it in my pocket to use the next day, and the next, and the next until it would literally fall apart. Then, hopefully, I could find a fresh equivalent size. I especially disdained a grocery bag which I had to use if we had no smaller bag. In my mind that just was not cool and I would throw it away as soon as I emptied my lunch. It just would not feel right in my right hip pocket.

I agree with your thoughts about the Christmas bag. We still practice the custom at Zion Lutheran Church in Walburg, Texas. For some reason the bags now don’t seem to me to be as big and as full of goodies as they once were.

Weldon Mersiovsky - 01/27/2016 18:12

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