April 25, 2012

Civil War Paper Bags

Today we are used to going to a store, having them bag out items and hand them to us. During the mid-1800s, You would go to the store, point out what you wanted and the clerk would hand it to you to put in your own bags, boxes and barrels brought from home. Some shops in the city would wrap up your parcel in paper and have it delivered to your home as a courtesy.

People complained of shop owners wrapping purchases in newspaper only to have the ink ruin their purchase but more expensive shops used plain or brown paper to prevent this. Newspaper covered parcels were considered low class and few wealthy ladies wanted to be seen carrying one.

In 1852 Francis Wolle patented a paper bag making machine but his bags weren't widely available until 1869, when he founded the Union Paper Bag Machine Company. Before that, if you wanted a paper bag, you'd have to make it yourself or rely on mass handmade bags that some products came in. Little paper bags were popular for holding seeds and tiny foodstuffs like raisins, dried herbs, small cakes, nuts ect. Thick, brown paper was common for paper bag making.

Making paper bags is a pretty simple endeavor. 

How to make paper bags, the 1850s way: 

 -Cut 1 piece of paper the size you want the final bag to be, adding an extra 1/2 inch on 3 sides. Cut a second piece without the extra 1/2 inch. 

-Put glue on the "extra" flaps of paper and place the smaller piece of paper on top of the larger one, making sure that the two top edges are even.

-Press down the side edges and allow a minute to dry.

-Glue the bottom flap and fold to the top, fold the flap over and let it dry. Once dry, fill it with your favorite goodies!

This is very low tech but one way they did it. These instructions were taken from the book Rollo's Vacation, where a girl is teaching her little brother how to make bags to keep seeds in. The book recommends powdered gum-arabic, which can still be purchased in art stores, but is very expensive. 


  1. I can imagine the arguments and discussions at Civl War reenactments about whether this is the "right" kind of paper bag, the "right" weight, color, or if a Civil war soldiers would even have a paper bag at the "Battle of Snidler's landing."

    1. Probably. :)

      The problem with reenactments is that we show a battle as well as "snapshots of the era." By that I mean, women didn't typically sleep with the army but they existed. Rows of tents existed in camps and training camps but are not typical for campaigns. This is not any more unrealistic to have than a poke sack (especially the "el cheapo" variety that most carry)as they were available in shops for small items like tea and candy.

      I try to match up my brown paper to paper of the time: http://www.loc.gov/pictures/resource/cph.3g05168/ ,but I'm not getting it specially made. (You'd be surprised at the varying colors and weights they did have.)

      After using the bags a few times and folding them up, they look great. If someone prefers a thinner paper, they can re-purpose brown lunch bags or use painters masking paper.

      Examples of brown paper:








    2. Oh Stephanie, you don't have to prove them to me. We are both old timers. Thank you for the documentation on this subject. It's good to have when someone says that "they never had THAT."

    3. Most of the discussion on brown paper at reenactments comes from the "authentically wrapped" cartridges. :D Thick brown paper is too hard to tear with the teeth, but it wasn't the only paper around!

      I just wanted to let everyone know, I haven't been weighing paper at the paper bag museum. :D

    4. Yeah, or where the paper fibers were milled and if they did it with modern methods or water-powered machinery. Yankee boy: "Look ma, a paper bag" :)

  2. Great article as usual. I believe I will have to give this a try! Thanks

    1. It's really nice to have one made for small items you might buy from a sutler. I dread the walk back to camp with a modern book or item wrapped in plastic.

  3. paper bags Designing so were nice

    1. I think the best looking ones are these colored ones:


      These are probably slightly post war but the advertisements on them are very classic.

  4. It's really nice to have one made for small paper Bags.

  5. Thank you for sharing! I will be making some. They are very nice and will have lots of uses.


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