Unpacking the Impact of a Brown Paper Bag

It has made cameos in “Friends,” “Gossip Girl” and “Elf.” It has been reincarnated as a cake, a Limoges porcelain box and a champagne-diamond pendant. It has been rendered in chrome-plated resin as part of a sculpture of Andy Warhol by the artist Rob Pruitt. And, as other entities in the fashion world have been airbrushed and transformed over the last five decades, its brown-kraft-paper visage has had no significant face-lifts.

It is a shopping bag — the Big Brown Bag, from the department store Bloomingdale’s — which turns 50 this month.

To celebrate, Bloomingdale’s has introduced the Big Brown Bazaar at its flagship store on 59th Street in Manhattan, which is filled with new merchandise inspired by the shopping bag, including a Big Brown pickleball paddle ($98), a Big Brown journal ($19.95) and a Polo Ralph Lauren sweatshirt ($188) that features a bear holding a Big Brown Bag. A commemorative version of the bag, with a golden “50” and rope handles, will also be offered to store customers through October.

Introduced in 1973, the Big Brown Bag debuted amid a rebranding at Bloomingdale’s that began a year earlier under Marvin Traub, then the department store’s chief executive, as it celebrated a century in business.

Mr. Traub, who died in 2012, wrote in his memoir that as part of the initiative, the store’s vice president of advertising and sales promotion at the time, Mary Joan Glynn, proposed a redesign of its logo and graphics. For that effort, the store tapped Massimo and Lella Vignelli, the married founders of the graphic design firm Vignelli Associates, who in 1972 had redesigned the New York City subway map. They developed a new typeface for Bloomingdale’s: a modernist, sans-serif font that looked different from its earlier branding, which featured its name rendered in a swirly script that recalled a handwritten signature. Mr. Traub, in his book, wrote that Ms. Glynn named the font Bloomingtype.

A woman carrying a Bloomingdale’s shopping bag in 1973. The bag features the store’s name in Bloomingtype, the modernist font developed around that time.Credit…William E. Sauro/The New York Times
An artist-designed Bloomingdale’s shopping bag introduced in the mid 1970s.Credit…Bill Cunningham/The New York Times

Around the time the store started to use Bloomingtype, it introduced a larger size of the brown-kraft-paper shopping bags it had been giving to customers. The bigger bags were requested by the store’s linens department, to better fit items like pillows and blankets. Printed on those bags were three stacked words: Big Brown Bag. Later, a Little Brown Bag was introduced for customers buying cosmetics, and after that, a Medium Brown Bag.

The bags’ combination of matter-of-fact tag lines and mundane material poked at the idea of the shopping bag as a status symbol, said Emily Orr, an associate curator at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. “The bag isn’t memorable due to its fancy materials or its flashy exterior,” she said, but because “it’s very readable and recognizable and makes design accessible.”

About two decades later, the bags were reworked to incorporate the Bloomingdale’s name down their sides. But by then they had already become symbolic of the department store and the lifestyle it had come to signify: a rarefied but not inaccessible mishmash of uptown and downtown sensibility epitomized by the events hosted at the flagship store in the 1970s and ’80s, which drew guests like Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis; the designers Diane von Furstenberg and Calvin Klein; and Mr. Warhol, who was known to carry around issues of Interview, the magazine he founded, in brown shopping bags from Bloomingdale’s.

A Sampling of Bloomingdale’s Shopping Bags

“If you recognized the bag you were in the Bloomingdale’s tribe,” said Debbie Millman, the chair of the master’s program in branding at the School of Visual Arts and the host of the “Design Matters” podcast.

In the years since the Big Brown Bag debuted, Bloomingdale’s has introduced other shopping bags made in collaboration with artists and designers as part of a series that the store started producing in the early 1960s. Those bags — which have featured motifs by the fashion designer Franco Moschino and the interior designer Ettore Sottsass, among others — were a way to communicate the store’s cultural awareness to customers, said John C. Jay, a creative director of communications and marketing at Bloomingdale’s from 1979 to 1992. Some are now in the permanent collections of the Cooper Hewitt and the New-York Historical Society.

“When a new bag hit the streets of Manhattan, immediately you would get calls,” said Mr. Jay, who is now the president of global creative at Fast Retailing, a conglomerate that owns Helmut Lang and other brands. “People would say, ‘Did you see that bag?’”

The Big Brown Bag and its ilk were never retired, though, and in 1995, the style was adapted into a brown PVC tote bag, which Bloomingdale’s has since sold in various sizes. Other merchandise inspired by the shopping bag has included mugs, passport covers and key chains.

Since their introduction, the brown shopping bags have been spotted in the hands of notable New Yorkers like Andy Warhol and Sarah Jessica Parker. Credit…Broadimage/Shutterstock

“People like to take a piece of the brand home with them,” said Frank Berman, the executive vice president and chief marketing officer at Bloomingdale’s. “We’ve done umbrellas — Big Brown umbrellas — we’ve done Big Brown beach chairs, we’ve done Big Brown towels, we’ve done Big Brown chocolate boxes.”

There have also been special editions of the shopping bag. In 2018, Bloomingdale’s created a Super Brown Bag, featuring characters from Super Mario Bros., to promote a collection the store released in collaboration with Nintendo. A year later, a version of the bag with an altered tag line — Big Little Lies — was introduced to promote a partnership with that television show and HBO.

“The No. 1 thing people associate with the brand is that Big Brown Bag,” Mr. Berman said.

While leaving the Bloomingdale’s flagship store on a Saturday afternoon in August, Liat Orshansky described the Big Brown Bag she was carrying as “classic.” But there are other shopping bags that feel more luxurious, she said.

“Even though what’s in here is Chanel shoes, it’s not a Chanel bag,” Ms. Orshansky, 47 and from Los Angeles, said.

Max Cantor, 35, who walked out of the store with a Medium and a Little Brown Bag, said he had once heard that you should never shop somewhere if you would be embarrassed to carry that store’s bag. “It might be kind of snobby, but I think there’s some truth to that,” said Mr. Cantor, a video director in Brooklyn who has worked with The New York Times.

Gesturing to his brown shopping bags, he added, “I think this is kind of a fail-safe.”

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