The big brown paper bag has a long and interesting history.

Brown paper bags have become a fixture in our daily lives: we use them to carry groceries home, to do store-bought purchases, and to pack our kids’ lunches. Retailers use them as a blank canvas for branded product packaging. Others even wear them as masks for Halloween.

As with the best inventions, the paper bag fulfilled a need people didn’t know they had. Before paper bags, baskets, bowls, and other containers were the main storage solution in every home and store. Then you can imagine the revolutionary creation of a useful disposable container. Business owners were able to stockpiles of these bags in their stores, and their low cost and ease of use made them widely available to shoppers, even in modest ways.

So how did this seemingly mundane invention earn its place in the heart (and hand) of the everyday consumer? Our article gives a hint of a brief look at the history and evolution of the paper bag.

Innovators Who Introduced Us to Paper Bag

For the British Empire, for centuries sacks made of jute, canvas, and cloth were the primary method of transporting a variety of goods. The main benefit of these materials was their solid, durable construction, but they were both time-consuming and expensive to manufacture. Paper, on the other hand, can be produced at a much lower cost and soon became the premier material of portable bags along trade routes.

Since its launch in the 1800s, the paper bag has gone through multiple stages thanks to several smart innovators. In 1852 Francis Wolle invented the first machine for the mass production of paper bags. While Wolle’s paper bag looks like an enormous postal envelope we know from grocery stores today (and can therefore only be used to transport small objects and documents), it has catalyzed the mainstream use of paper packaging.

The next major step in paper bag design came from Margaret Knight, a prolific inventor who later worked for the Columbia Paper Bag Company. There, he realized that the use of bags with a square bottom rather than Wolle’s envelope design would be more practical and efficient. She produced the paper bag-making machine, thus paving the way for the widespread commercial use of paper bags. His machine was so profitable that he would establish his own company, Eastern Paper Bag Company. Even today, when you bring home food from the supermarket or buy a new outfit from the store, you are enjoying the fruits of Knight’s labor.

In these square bottom bags, a classic component of the paper bag we know and love today was still missing: the folded edges. We can thank Charles Stillwell for this addition, which makes it easier to fold the bags and therefore store them. Stillwell’s design, a commercial mechanical engineer, is commonly known as the SOS bag or “self-opening bags.”

But wait – there’s more! In 1918, two St. Paul grocers came up with another refinement to the original design. Deubeners made holes in the edges of the paper bags with handles, and by attaching a double-folded rope to the base for reinforcement, they discovered that customers could carry about 20 kilograms of food in each bag. This innovation proved to be very important in a short time in the delivery of food you buy in bulk.

Why are Paper Bags Made?

So what materials does a paper bag consist of? The most popular material for paper bags is kraft paper made from wood chips. The Kraft paper production process, originally designed by a German chemist named Carl F. Dahl in 1879, is as follows: wood chips are exposed to intense heat, which breaks them down into solid pulp and by-products. Then the dough is sifted, washed, and bleached, taking its final form as the brown paper we all know. This pulping process makes Kraft paper particularly strong (hence the name “strength” in German) and therefore ideal for handling heavy loads.

How Long Can a Paper Bag Hold?

Of course, there is more to picking the perfect paper bag than just the material. If you need to transport particularly bulky or heavy items, there are a few other features you should consider when choosing the product that best meets your needs:

Paper Base Weight

The paperweight, also known as grammage, is a measure of how dense the paper is in pounds relative to 500 rolls. The higher the number, the denser and heavier the paper.


The gusset is a reinforced area where the material is added to strengthen the bag. Gusseted paper bags can accommodate heavier items and are less likely to break.

Twist Handle

Twisting handles made by bending natural Kraft paper into cords and then gluing those cords into the paper bag are typically used with gussets to increase the weight a bag can carry.

Square Base vs. Envelope Style

While Wolle’s envelope style bag was later developed, it is still very useful for some businesses and is widely used in our postal system. If you want to accommodate larger items, Knight’s square bottom paper bag may be better suited for your needs.

A Style for Every Need: Many Types of Paper Bags

Paper bag design has come a long way since Francis Wolle and has continued to evolve to meet consumer demands for a more modern, easy-to-use product.

You can find articles on various paper bags available for business or personal use on our Blog.

The Paper Bag Continues to Make Waves

Throughout history, the paper bag has passed from one innovator to another, it has been repeatedly developed to make it easier to use and cheaper to manufacture. But to a few knowledgeable retailers, the paper bag represented more than a convenience for customers: it also became a highly visible (and highly lucrative) marketing asset.