The Design Legacy of New York City’s Plastic Bags
It’s late evening in a deli in Midtown New York City. Just as I’m about to refuse a plastic bag for a few small items, I reverse course. There it is! A white plastic bag with purple flowers and a large purple “Thank You” written on the bottom. I had only seen this bag in stories about the city.
Uptown, a bike passes by with yellow smiley faces on bags strapped to each of its handles, while downtown, a plastic bag with the familiar swashes of “Thank you for shopping with us!” is being tossed around by traffic— more well-known designs that I had never seen in person.
Some of the bags I spotted on recent trips to New York City
Though formally banned since March 2020, plastic bags are still alive and kicking in New York City, displaying some iconic designs whose continued presence might surprise outsiders. While many of these designs are available throughout the United States, there’s a particular concentration of them in the New York. Much like the iconic Greek coffee cup, they’re an otherwise forgettable piece of commercial ephemera that has become part of the city’s culture.
As an outsider from a place where bags usually come in grey, white, or with business branding, New York’s plastic bag designs caught my eye. And I wasn’t alone.
The famous “Thank You for Shopping With us” bag spotted in a Washington Heights bodega and on the street downtown
Sho Shibuya, a designer originally from Tokyo, also noticed the unique plastic bag designs when he moved to New York City in 2011. He was fascinated by the bags and their motifs. Led by the Japanese concept of “yaoyoruzu no-kami,” or “eight million gods,” a belief that every item has a god living inside and should be respected, Shibuya started collecting them.
His collection now spans over 200 bags.
Screenshot of Sho Shibuya’s plastic bag collection from the New York Times (New York Times)
Shibuya, the founder of New York City design agency Placeholder, believes that the bags are everyday pieces of art and part of the city’s visual landscape.
“These imprints are not copyrighted and difficult to trace, but, […] there is an informal taxonomy to New York City’s plastic bags, apparent to anyone paying attention,” Shibuya told the New York Times.
Shibuya’s collection includes bags with bright yellow smiley faces, various thank you messages, from stacked to swashed in Bookman font, and a variety of purple flower designs. While these bags are available in many cities, their prominence in New York City has led Shibuya to view them as part of the city’s identity.
More of Sho Shibuya’s various “Thank You” bags as seen in the New York Times (New York Times)
“What more effective brand system is there, than one that signifies an entire city through something as simple as a print on a plastic bag?”
Shortly before New York state’s plastic bag ban took effect in 2020, Shibuya created Plastic Paper as a farewell ode to the iconic designs. Part book, part digital project, Plastic Paper displays Shibuya’s collection, celebrates finding joy in the everyday and emphasizes the need to move away from plastic bags.
“Our intent is to celebrate daily works of design, not waste. These bags were useful, and that usefulness led to their ubiquity, and they became a medium for delightful exercises in pragmatic design.”
Sho Shibuya’s Plastic Paper book describing specific plastic bag designs (Plastic Paper)
The origins of the bags
The “t-shirt” plastic bag design we know so well today was invented by Swedish engineer Sten Gustaf Thulin and patented by the company Celloplast in 1965. Made of polyethylene, a plastic created by accident in the 1930s in Northwich, England and used in secret by Britain during World War II, the plastic bag was introduced to European markets in the late 1960s.
People were initially reluctant to use plastic bags, preferring paper or reusable cloth bags. But after years of aggressive marketing by plastics and oil companies in both Europe and North America, polyethylene became the dominant supermarket bag material by the late 1980s.
Sten Gustaf Thulin’s patent for the plastic bag from 1965 (Google Patents) and Peter Stackpole’s ‘Throwaway Living’ from 1955 showing a prototypical American nuclear family embracing disposable plastics as featured in Life Magazine (© Time Inc.)
So, where did New York City’s bag designs come from?
As Shibuya discovered, tracing the origin of the designs on the bags is difficult, if not impossible. Each familiar design appears in so many different variations that it’s clear there’s also no firm copyright in place.
Melissa Deckert’s collection from a personal “Thanks for Nothing” project (Melissa Deckert)
“These designs don’t belong to anyone, they belong to and give form to the image of the city as a whole. They have graduated from the specific to the general vernacular.”
One neighbourhood that knew smiley face and “Thank you” bags particularly well is Chinatown. In an article for National Geographic, Bonnie Tsui, author of American Chinatown: A People’s History of Five Neighborhoods, writes of her childhood in New York City and the nostalgia for certain plastic bag designs.
“In Chinatown, the choice of food delivery bag likely started out as a conscious one: to use both traditional symbols and friendly messages and imagery borrowed from other parts of American culture— like the smiley face—in an effort to appeal to white audiences and as a response to the racism of the wider world,” writes Tsui.
Smiley face bag in a takeout restaurant
Tsui explains that certain bag designs have become so associated with Chinatown that it feels uneasy when they get appropriated by non-Asian fashion and streetwear companies.
Influences on design
The worldwide shift away from plastic bags has created many more respectful tributes to these iconic designs, some direct and others more removed.
Andrea Wong’s Gratitude fabric bags (AW By Andrea Wong) and a stacked Thank You card by Spaghetti and Meatballs (Spaghetti and Meatballs) – available to purchase
The direct influence of the bag designs is unmistakable. Emily Sugihara, founder of the reusable bag company Baggu, told Bonnie Tsui that of all the various designs of reusable bags the company makes, the “Thank You” designs are consistently the most popular. Baggu’s smiley face design is also listed as one of their Best Sellers.
Baggu’s top selling reusable bags (Baggu)
San Francisco artist Lauren DiCioccio also started recreating the famous designs by embroidering them on reusable bags wanting to capture the bags’ beautiful designs while doing away with their original disposable state.
Lauren DiCioccio’s embroidered (yes embroidered!) tributes to the classic plastic bags- available to purchase (Open Editions)
Tributes to the designs through illustration have become a classic, especially in the context of shopping.
Christine Hughes from Darling Studio sketch encouraging to shop local (Darling Studio) and Zachary Weiland De Nada Cantina Bag illustration (Dribbble)
Fellow Canadian designer Renee Taillon created her own tribute to the plastic bags of New York City that delighted her during her time living there. In her “Sorry” project (which she was inspired to make after attending the Plastic Paper book launch!) she re-created the classic stacked Thank You bag. She called it “an icon to a city for a Canadian that apologizes too much.”
Renee Taillon’s “Sorry” tribute to the New York City bag (Renee Taillon)
“I loved how they always said something sweet. NYC is a wild and busy place and every interaction can feel really transactional. It’s nice to have a takeaway piece that expresses gratitude,” Taillon tells me.
"NYC can feel lonely and isolating, but when your take out comes in a bag that says 'have a nice day' with a big smile, it doesn’t feel as terrible."
The bags have also undoubtedly influenced broader design trends. A current stacked word trend is making its way through the design world, arguably influenced by the thank you bags.
New Wave from Bernoru font promo (Creative Market) Variance Magazine promo by Brethren Design Co (Dribbble) Good Things Are Coming free digital quotes by Tatiana Soash (Tatiana Soash) and an animated ad I happened to see during research for this style by AMD (Dribbble)
Plastic bag legacy
As we consider the impact of these bag designs and the feelings of joy they’ve evoked, we cannot ignore the legacy of plastic bags.
Today, one trillion plastic bags are produced a year. In New York state, residents use 23 billion bags annually.
Polyethylene, a material that was originally intended to be reused, has become disposable and can be found in virtually every crevice of the earth suffocating our planet. How remarkable that such a short period of time since their introduction—forty years—has left human behaviour altered and the earth polluted through and through.
Plastic garbage in Nicaragua (Unsplash)
The sad truth is we were taught to dispose of plastic.
“Disposability was still a new idea, born during the Great Depression and at odds with the frugality of the World War II years,” writes Dr. Rebecca Altman, a writer and sociologist who explores the history of plastics. “It is a social innovation, and it took time to take hold—a systematic rerouting of human behavior and norms.”
Society was encouraged to dispose and waste so that the plastics industries may drive sales, Altman explains.
It’s time for a change.
Taking greater care of what we have is a good place to start.
As Sho Shibuya writes in his Plastic Paper dedication, celebrating the bag designs “is an act of preservation of everyday design and a call to give greater care to the objects we use every day, to reuse them and waste less, and to find happiness and inspiration in the little acts of art and creativity we’d otherwise miss.”
My personal collection of New York City bags
Follow Sho Shibuya on Instagram for his latest incredible project—painting on New York Times covers
The history of the smiley face is surprisingly dramatic
Artist Robin Frohardt created a whole store out of plastic in 2020
“How the Plastic Bag Became So Popular” by The Atlantic is an eye opener
There’s something amusing about fashion powerhouse Vogue providing its 10 picks for reusable bags
A very good article Barbara. Interesting perspective.