Carrier bags in Singapore, 1950s-’80s

Caught this at the National Museum of Singapore, more than just paper, glue and string… this was a virtual trip down memory lane of ‘cheena’ looking letter-press printed paperbags with their red and white twine carrier handles.

But whether paper or plastic, we certainly were no strangers to carrier bags; it was a common form of ‘convenient’ packaging and an alternative to the rattan basket.

The exhibition showcases 60 paper and plastic bags in the National Museum’s collection.

Together with contextual photos, the display highlights different uses of the ubiquitous carrier bag; its role as a mobile advertisement, and also shed light on the paper bag business in Singapore – a much forgotten trade that is still surviving today.

It runs from 19 December 2009 to 18 April 2010.

Museum exhibition panel - darn cool design

Exhibition entrance - reminiscent of old Chinese kraft paper bags with red and white twine carrying handles

Central exhibit of various carrier bags mounted onto acrylic panels

The exhibit panel stretches almost the length of the room.

The beautiful Chinese rattan basket - what every housewife and maid carried for their purchases before the ubiquitous carrier bags came around.

In the early days - Singapore circa '60s, the main types of paper in paper bag manufacturing were imported kraft paper and wrapping paper. Sturdier paper bags had rectangular pieces of cardboard glued to the handles and base. Carrying handles were either cut out from the bag or the 'infamous' red and white cotton twine were tied and affixed to become carrying handles. These cotton twine handles cut deeply into the fingers, especially when one was carrying a paper bag filled with heavy purchases. I think this was possibly the reason I hated following my mother when she went shopping; carrying a few of these heavily laden carrier bags almost guaranteed one's fingers being sliced off. In the photograph above, we see a large batch of red and white cotton twine, imported from China, the white paste in the centre is tapioca flour, used for making the starch paste to stick the kraft paper together. At bottom is kraft paper used for making the paper bag itself.

Paper bags manufacture began as a cottage industry in Singapore as early as in the 1940s. Overheads were low with as few as ten workers; and the workspace shared the bag maker’s residential space. To ensure the viability of the business, early paper bag makers recycled layers of kraft paper from cement bags. These were obtained from the construction sites. This practice of recycling kraft paper to make bags continued in the 1970s and 1980s using paper from sugar and animal feed bags. Carrier bags were also made from new craft paper bought from paper suppliers; these were then printed with graphics before cut and assembled into bags. The operation relied on manual labour, it was time-consuming and repetitive and labour often came from family members or female workers who were housewives.

Printed sheet of kraft paper showing front and back of the carrier.

Letter-press templates

An array of kraft paper bags with printing in red, dark green and bl.ack

A paper bag for Empress Restaurant, 1960s, manufactured by Nan Chiang Paper Bags Company and printed by Mentor Printers. "Queen of the Mooncakes" was one of the signature carrier bags fondly remembered by many Chinese Singaporeans, as were the mooncakes sold during the Chinese eighth month by the restaurant's bakery. The brown paper carrier bag was made specially to hold boxes of mooncakes and was folded such that its broad square base was a perfiect fit for holding the square mooncake boxes. The shape of this bag remains relevant today as many restaurants and bakeries still pack their mooncakes in square boxes.

Plastic carrier bags for Singapore's famous beauty consultant Sylvia Kho.

Paper carrier bags for Nestle with Lactogen advertisement and Nestle with Milo advertisement; circa 1960s - 1970s

Carrier bags with illustrations and textual information help to advertise products and services, or inform consumers of a store’s presence or promotions. The advertisements on these bags become mobile wherever the bag is carried; the customer becomes a ‘silent salesperson’ who affirms the product or shop featured in the advertisement. Having pictorial illustrations contributes to the effectiveness of the advertisement, assisting customers to visually relate to these products quickly. Most of the information on carrier bags was printed in English and Chinese, with the exception of some that were in languages such as Malay, Tamil, Arabic and even Burmese.

Paper carrier bag for Sun Mei Company

A special 1967 Robinson's departmental store French promotion paper carrier bag. Note the red and white cotton twine carrier handles! The marker illustration was colour-separated and offset-litho printed. A rather charming and splendid promotional effort from Singapore's upper-crust departmental store.

C.K. Tangs paper carrier. This departmental store positioned itself to be one and everything to everyone.

Small size paper carrier for C. K. Tang

Paper carrier bag for Gim Cheong and Company with Ayam (Malay for chicken) and Cock Soap advertisement; 1960s - 1970s

Yaohan departmental store plastic carrier

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About ranman

Design educator with a Masters of Design degree. 32 years of design experience. View all posts by ranman

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