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What do the strange words at the top of paper bags mean?

Dear Cecil:

I'm not sure when I first began noticing the arcane titles at the tops of paper bags (samples enclosed), but, seeing them once, I began to note others in great variety. Since they don't seem to indicate paper weight or bag size, what are they? And why the Boy Scout names?

Mary Shen Barnidge, Chicago

Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

I’ve had it on my list to look into this, Mary. Had it on my list for four years, actually, since that’s how long ago your letter arrived. However, I feel that from the standpoint of improving with age, a good question is like a fine wine.

No argument, the marks on paper bags can be pretty strange. Your samples include one that consists of a flag on which is inscribed ADVANCE 4, and beneath that the enigmatic word WA-HA. This must be the Boy Scout name you refer to, although the influence of the Shriners can’t be entirely discounted. Another set of marks consists of the word TRINITY above an inverted triangle, with, in one version, the word TOREADOR below, while another has TOREADOR SQUAT. I’m familiar with the concept of doodly-squat, of course, but squatting toreadors, paper bags … I dunno. Seems like a pretty narrow market niche.

At the Straight Dope we’re nothing if not resourceful, however. I called up the folks at Stone Container Corporation, the leading maker of paper bags, and learned that Wa-Ha, Toreador Squat, etc., are all trade names applied to various styles and sizes of paper bags by manufacturers. Wa-Ha is an “SO grocer” bag made of brown kraft paper by the Great Plains Bag Co. Great Plains had a thing for Indian names; its line of bags included Dakota, Mohican, Wampum, Teepee, and Super Chief. SO stands for self-opening — if you hold the bag by the half-moon cutout at the top and give it a sharp flip, it’ll open by itself.

Toreador and Toreador Squat are natural kraft bags made by Trinity Bag & Paper Co. — the Squat variety, as we might have predicted, being squatter in shape than the regular kind. You also enclosed samples of Wolf and Tornado bags; both are white SO grocer bags, the former made by Union Camp Corporation, the latter by Trinity.

You’ve also got your Terrier, your Titanic, your Sweepstakes Chunky, and scores of other names ranging from the charming to the prosaic. Why so many? We can only guess, but I venture to say in the paper bag business you need all the creative outlets you can get. Sadly, the whimsical names of yore are slowly fading away. Great Plains and the bagmaking operations of Trinity B&P, for example, were bought by Stone Container, which has phased out Toreador Squat in favor of the more informative but unpoetic Natural Shorty.

The number on the bag, in case you wondered, indicates its capacity. Your smaller units, called bags or grocers, have numbers from 1/2 to 25, signifying the approximate weight in pounds of sugar or flour the bag can hold. Your bigger varieties, known as sacks, are sized in fractions of a barrel, e.g., 1/6, the size most commonly found in supermarkets.

Cecil Adams

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