Photo by Matt Moloney on Unsplash

May 25th is National Brown-Bag-It Day, according to the people who make ridiculous calendar events. So we’re here to talk about bringing your own lunch, but also the subversive connections to the humble brown bag. The factory-made paper bag was invented in 1852, when a Pennsylvania man named Francis Wolle created a machine that could cut and paste paper into an envelope-shaped bag. Before that, shoppers brought their own baskets or packed items in straw and crates. A picnic basket carried food if you were out for the day.

Brown-Bag Blues

When I was a wee girl back in the Stone Age, there was a distinct hierarchy on the playground: You brought your lunch in a lunchbox until you reached the upper-level playground. Then you wouldn’t be caught dead with a cartoon character on your lunch—you brought a lunch bag. The girlie-girls brought pastel colored lunch bags. Some kids brought a grocery bag (see Emilio Estevez as Andrew Clark in “The Breakfast Club” for what a high school wrestler brought to lunch). The paper bag was the way to bring lunch to school until the Nineties, when insulated cloth and vinyl bags made an appearance and the paper bag lost ground.

Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures

Author Anne Lamott riffs on bag lunches in her book on writing, Bird by Bird, noting particular details, from the kid’s scrawled name in parental handwriting to the rankings of jam vs. jelly in a PB&J (read it; it’s a hoot!). She wasn’t wrong. You can tell everything about a person by what they bring in their lunch and what kind of receptacle the lunch is contained within.

My school lunches contained a peanut butter or bologna sandwich on white bread, half a piece of fruit (big family, low rations), possibly some carrot and celery sticks, and one or two cookies (two small ones, one if it was regular size). A paper napkin completed the set-up. By late elementary school I was making my own lunch. There was one time, when my mom had started working again, that I took her lunch – another brown bag on the same counter – by mistake. It opened my eyes in ways I am still processing.

For one, she had made tuna fish but out of whatever we had eaten the night before – cod, I think? It was ingenious (to me as an adult!) and terrifying (I hated fish as a child). And that was the sandwich I was forced to eat. The only thing worse would have been sardines. But *surprise*! Mom also put in a couple of tiny Hershey’s bars from a secret bag hidden somewhere high in the kitchen cabinets. It was her own treat, something she did not have to share, and clearly did not want us to know about. I still remember this little bit of rebellion and self-care, and say, “Go, Mom!”

For the record, I hide my chocolate in the bread machine. No one ever looks there.

Photo courtesy of Campbell’s Soups

Home-Made Lunch vs School Lunch

When I was a wee girl back in the Pleistocene era, kids went home for lunch. The accepted belief was still that a hot meal was better than a cold meal at lunch (this was 1970). I distinctly remember the tardy bell when kids came running in late from their walk back to school – back when lunchtime was a full hour. Campbell’s Soups staked their claim to hot lunch territory with an array of canned soups. But the hot meal became a battle between society and women who had jobs. A 1973 New Jersey school district erupted into discord over whether children were allowed to bring a lunch from home instead of going home to eat. Six children were suspended for bringing bag lunches. As Anna Mae Shepherd, a lawyer who represented the mothers, told the New York Times, “It’s a sex equality issue, a test of whether the system isn’t set up to ensure that a woman stays in the kitchen.” At the time just 44 percent of women, who were also the primary lunch-makers, worked at jobs outside the home. Today you would be hard-pressed to find any school that allowed its students to walk home and back again during the 30 minutes allotted for school lunch.

Who makes school lunches today (when classes are in session, in person)? A study by Pew Research in 2019 showed that women with children do 75 percent of the food preparation and cooking, which likely includes making school lunches. So it doesn’t seem that things have changes that much since 1970. But at least in 1970, we had this:

Photo courtesy of United Features Syndicate

Yummy lunch ideas, if you were brave enough to break custom. Pretty much the greatest thing since – sliced bread?

If you want to eat food prepared from home, use a tiffin, a bento box, a cooler, or a reusable cloth bag, to help save the environment from one-and-done paper and plastic products.

Enjoy your sack lunch, in whatever carrier you brought it—and happy Brought My Own Lunch Day!

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