SELF-OPENING SACK (1883)

In 2008, New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) invited the Brazilian contemporary artist Vik Muniz to curate a show of his personal favourites from the collection. One of his more unusual choices – which was startlingly juxtaposed with a Giacometti sculpture – was a pleated brown paper bag of the kind that millions of Americans use for carrying home their groceries.

Another typical piece of conceptual art then, a neo-Duchampian ready-made? Not a bit of it, for this unassuming object was the ‘Self-Opening Sack’, or SOS, patented by Charles Sitwell in 1883 and a landmark in US design history.

It is perhaps an exaggeration to claim that the nineteenth century invented shopping, but certainly during this time the habit really took off. No wonder, then, that the century also saw a series of innovations in the development of the shopping bag. While Francis Wolle invented the first paper-bag machine in 1852, the honor of being the ‘father’ of the modern grocery bag is usually bestowed on Charles Sitwell (1845-1919).

Sitwell’s principal concern was that his bag should stand up on its own, so he introduced side pleats that added enormously to its structural strength. A simple-enough device, no doubt, but it was this unfussy design solution that made the bag an enduring classic.

You will never look at a grocery bag in the same way again.