Don’t Forget Your Purse: “50 Bags That Changed the World,” by Robert Anderson 

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By Kathy Megyeri 

Do you ever remember your mother not carrying a handbag?  

The purse is one of the oldest accessories in history – there’s evidence that a “backpack” was used by our nomadic, hunter-gatherer forebears who needed to have their hands free as they wandered through forest in search of prey. Later, the “rucksack” became a staple of the military, carrying everything the soldier needed to live in the field. But the humble bag has developed, evolved, and fulfilled so many different functions that its diversity is huge. Today, who can recognize the relationship between a nylon bicycle pannier and a calf-leather Gucci handbag? 

“50 Bags That Changed the World,” published by London’s Design Museum, has a page of history accompanied by a photograph which pays homage to that emotionally-laden, deeply expressive receptacle that has become a companion for holding our secrets, serving a utilitarian purpose, conferring status, and becoming a means of self-display.  

A few “bags” have really impacted our lives. First and foremost is the pleated brown paper grocery bag. This unassuming object was the “self-opening sack,” or “SOS” patented by Philadelphia printer Charles Stilwell in 1883. Francis Wolle invented the first paper-bag machine in 1852, but it was Stillwell who introduced side pleats, adding structural strength allowing it stand up on its own.  

This unfussy design solution made it an enduring classic and the SOS remained a stalwart of the grocery trade into the 1970’s when a Swedish plastics company, Celloplast, patented the plastic grocery sack. Supermarket chains Safeway and Kroger abandoned the traditional paper and embraced the plastic alternative. But by the late 1990’s plastic had become public enemy No. 1 and recycled plastic bags are now being woven into sleep-on mats. Canvas tote bags are now again gaining in popularity. 

Other bags impacted history, too. The “carpetbag” became the symbol of a nation on the move following the American Civil War; hence the derogatory term “carpetbagger.” There are saddlebags, physician’s bags, steamer trunks, metal mesh bags made by gold and silversmiths, and exquisite beaded evening bags. There is the newsboy bag made of canvas with a long, strong strap and flap to keep out the rain; attaché cases for business executives; lunchboxes for American schoolchildren; and Robert Dumas-Hermes’ practical trapezoid body bag so often worn by Grace Kelly that Hermes renamed it in her honor. The Italian clutch bag by Fendi with its double F buckle became a staple on “Sex and the City,” and in the late 1990’s, manbags even became common.  

No matter what the bag, this book has something for everyone. Happy reading! 

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