How Bloomingdale’s Plain Paper Shopping Bags Became So Incredibly Iconic

They're big, brown and all over town

The name Marvin S. Traub probably doesn't ring a bell for most people. But it was the far-seeing Traub who, in the postwar era, "transformed Bloomingdale's from a stodgy Upper East Side family department store into a trendsetting international showcase of style and showmanship," to quote the store president's New York Times obituary. Spotlighting clothing designers, importing exotic wares from around the world, opening fine restaurants within the store—all were among Traub's signature achievements. And, in 1973, so was a remarkable marketing vehicle that's still doing its job 43 years later.

Photo: Nick Ferrari

It's the simplest, plainest object imaginable, and one whose utility is exceeded only by its epochal status: the Big Brown Bag.

Actually, it's the Big Brown Bag, the Medium Brown Bag and the Little Brown Bag. If you live in or have visited New York, you've seen them. If you've bought anything at Bloomingdale's, you've gotten one. And the fact that so many people recognize these basic, kraft-paper shopping bags with the twisted-cord handles is because Traub had the retail-comic genius to label them just as such. The Big Brown Bag really is a big brown bag. More surprising still: Traub left the store's name off the bag completely.

And according to retail consultant Ryan Barton, it was this daring move that wound up paying the store back in spades. "A bag that doesn't scream the retailer's name—how rare is that?" he said. But because the bag piqued so much curiosity, the Bloomingdale's name attached itself in a more enduring way: It was known to those in the know, which made the bags chic, which made the bags endure.

"Our shopping bag is a piece of advertising that our customers proudly exhibit walking down the street, going to the market, at the airport and in countless other scenarios extending beyond shopping at Bloomingdale's," said evp of creative services Jack Hruska. "It's a great marketing tool."

Like so many great marketing tools, the bag was born from need. "It started as a practical application," notes veteran New York retail consultant Howard Davidowitz. Since Bloomingdale's always did a healthy business in pillows and bedding, "they needed a big bag," he said. Kraft paper (an eco-conscious material decades before anyone knew or cared about the environment) fit the bill, and the brown lettering in the store's font was a nice touch—"chic and smart," Davidowitz said.

And it still is. So much so that the store also sells little brown vinyl tote bags modeled after its little brown paper shopping bags—about as meta as branding gets. Alas, changing times and the store's expansion outside of New York eventually necessitated the discreet placement of the Bloomingdale's name on the bag's gusset. But no matter. "Everybody still knows where it came from," Barton said.

Traub: Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage; Bloomingdales: Peter Kramer/Getty Images

This story first appeared in the Nov. 2 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.