When I was a kid the whole country switched from paper grocery bags over to plastic due to the pressure of professional environmentalists who wanted to save the trees. Most of you reading this have no memory of paper bags being used but it was quite something.

They came in about four or five different sizes and were kept in slots under the registers. And packing a paper bag was something of an art form for the “Baggers” working the check-out line. Like figuring out a jigsaw puzzle an experienced grocery Bagger would be sorting your items as the cashier rang them up: dry goods, dairy, meat, and frozen foods were all separated. Since you needed both hands to carry one the Bagger was expert at not making any bag too heavy. There was also a weight limit that each bag could take without tearing open on the side or having the bottom drop out. Frozen or refrigerated items were “double-bagged” so they wouldn’t soak the paper and fall apart by the time you got home.  Your tall rectangular bags would be placed in neat rows in your grocery cart and often the Bagger would take the cart out to your car and help you load them into the trunk for a tip. Then you were on your own.

Getting home, you would then trudge the bags individually into the house using both hands to carry a single bag.  There was a technique to this too: one forearm supported the bottom of the bag with an upturned hand and the other forearm formed an ‘L” shaped bracket and held the bag against your chest. Then, reaching the front door, you had to make a tricky move where you bent at the knees and, while still supporting the bag with your high forearm, you unlocked the door using just the wrist and fingers.

Then you returned over and over for your remaining bags. You pretty much had to be an adult male to cradle two bags at once in your arms without crushing the bread, eggs or cookies under the stern look of your wife or mother who was certain your oafishness would lead to disaster and “I told you so” reminders for weeks. When all the bags were unloaded they would generally be folded flat again and placed in the outside trash or garage, but you didn’t keep them in the house, ever.

“Why not?” you might ask.

Because of bugs. Paper grocery bags were kept in great piles in the dimly lit stock room of grocery stores and all kinds of bugs would crawl inside them and lay eggs — especially cockroaches and spiders. Leave them in your house for very long and you could have a serious problem.

Now the high-density polyethylene plastic bags were a miracle when they were introduced in about 1976. They were hailed as vastly superior to wasteful, dirty, bug-infested paper bags that were deforesting the country. They were invented by a company in Sweden which has always been on the cutting edge of profitable environmental sensibilities. They were ridiculously cheap to make and ship; they had handles that made them a breeze to carry; they could get wet without coming apart; bugs did not lay eggs in them; and they saved a huge amount of space in the stock room. But their major benefit was the ability to carry several plastic bags in one hand rather than holding just one large paper bag in both arms. That is what really turned people from Paper to Plastic, simple ergonomic utility.

Unfortunately, these plastic bags pretty much wiped out the need for grocery baggers at the checkout line in all but a few grocery store chains like Publix.