Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Paper Bags
Nature Bulletin No. 438-A    December 18, 1971
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

Paper bags may strike you as a peculiar topic for a Christmas bulletin. In previous years we chose reindeer, turkeys, holly, mistletoe, and other appropriate subjects. But paper bags also have a part in your celebration of Christmas: the ingredients for your dinner, many of them packaged in bags, come from the stores in grocery bags or shopping bags of heavy paper. Further, the patent for the first machine to make them was issued in 1852 to a 35-year-old schoolmaster, named Francis Wolle, in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania .

Bethlehem is a big town now, famous for its steel mills, but a hundred years ago it was a hamlet settled by devout Moravians of German origin. In those days there were "general stores" that sold groceries, meats, hardware, harness, clothing and "notions" such as pins, needles, thread, ribbons and buttons. Everything came to them in bulk -- barrels, keys, cloth sacks, and crates. Doling out small quantities to customers was a vexing problem. Some people came with baskets, or with "tote bags" of jute; others begged for a sheet of brown wrapping paper but paper was scarce. Even newspapers were scarce.

The early Egyptians made tough sheets of papyrus from a tall reed that grew along the banks of the Nile. The ancient Chinese made paper from the bark of the paper mulberry. In Asia, and in Europe during the Middle Ages, the only writing material was parchment, carefully prepared skins of goats and sheep, or vellum from calfskins. Then, in Spain, the Saracens introduced the art of making paper from cotton and linen rags -- cleaned, boiled, reduced to pulp by beating and grinding, and dried in thin layers between sheets of felt. Until the middle of the last century most paper was made that way and our finest writing paper is still made from rags.

About the time when Francis Wolle invented his machine, a German named Friedrich Gottlob Keller discovered how to make paper from pulp produced by grinding blocks of wood. The huge expansion of the paper-making industry, however, began when chemists discovered ways of converting wood into pulp by the sulfite, soda, and sulfate processes which, with ground pulp, are used to make various kinds of paper and paper board.

Wolle spent several years in overcoming the problems of making paper bags, and traipsing around the country to persuade storekeepers to try them. Production finally reached 1000 bags per day but, meanwhile, paper became more common and other bag-making machines were invented. In 1869, Wolle and his brother and other leading makers founded the Union Paper Bag Machine Company. Today, near Savannah, Georgia, the Union Bag & Paper Corporation operates the largest mill of its kind in the world. Into it, each year, go over a million cords of long-fibered Southern pine. Out of it come 35,000,000 paper bags per day -- 9 billion per year 250 bags for each family in the United States.

We went around making a list of the paper bags in our house. In addition to shopping bags, grocery bags and bags to put the garbage in, we found bags of sugar, cornmeal, flour, onions, potatoes, candy and nuts. There were tea bags and small white bags for sandwiches. In the basement we have bags of screws, tacks and nails. Garments come back from the cleaner in long paper bags. Most of the things we buy in a drugstore or "dime" store are placed in a paper bag. Cement, lime, fertilizer, salt, calcium chloride and other chemicals are sold in bags of heavy tough Kraft paper. This bulletin comes to you in an envelope, which is really a bag, so we wish you a very Merry Christmas !

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