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Brown-Bagging Their Way to a Measure of Fame

May 08, 1987|DAVID LARSEN | Times Staff Writer

Aside from the secretary of the treasury's signature on our currency, theirs are probably the most published names in the nation. And they are about as famous as the inventor of the drink Six Up.

Vivian Higginbotham, Ray Estrada, Mike Chaney--hardly household names. But, especially in the Western states, there is a good possibility the name is in your house.

It's in the bag. More accurately, it's on the bag.

Other than a square of paper proclaiming "Inspector 43," you don't know who was responsible for that badly stitched shirt, and you can only wish you knew who was accountable for that non-blowing horn on your new car.

But for 25 years now there has been a product, every unit of which comes complete with the byline of the person who made it.

"My boyfriend always scans the bag at the counter," Vivian Higginbotham of Walnut said. "If he sees my name, he points it out to the clerk and brags that he knows me."

Ah, to be a celebrity.

More than 100,000 times a day her name gets into print--sent out on paper bags that go to markets throughout Southern California, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Utah, Arizona, Alaska, Hawaii, and even Guam.

She and about 55 other collator operators, as they are called, work at the Willamette Industries Inc. plant in Buena Park. Each day the machines inside it produce more than 3-million paper bags. And each one trumpets who made it.

"Willamette was the first company to start this," said Tim Becker, general manager, bags and specialty products division. "We did it not only in the interest of quality and to instill pride by the workers, but it personalizes the bag, sort of like a Christmas card."

He remembered an 84-year-old Oregon resident who happened upon a bag bearing the name of a man he had known here.

"The Oregon man decided for that reason to keep using it, to see how long it would last. He would take it with him to the supermarket, and have it filled with whatever he bought.

"He used it for 104 trips. It became as soft as linen, but was still usable. Then for some reason he sent it to somebody in New York, and it has disappeared."

On the other hand, attorney James M. Goldberg of Washington, D.C., has collected a variety of bags--about 50 of them--and keeps them in the drawers of his office desk.

"Two years ago I made a routine stop at our building's takeout (restaurant)," he recalled on the phone. "While I was walking out with my Danish (pastry), I saw a name on the bottom of the brown bag. I had never noticed that before.

"I stuck the bag in my drawer. The next day, coming back with another bag, I noticed a different name."

Goldberg was on to something. Here was a new art form, complete with signatures.

"I started looking for other ones every time I went to the supermarket. And I'm still looking for one of the originals, one of the Babe Ruths."

What Goldberg should find are the magic words "Dick Goodrich." That was the first bag name, according to Bill Bristol, plant superintendent of Willamette's facility in Beaverton, Ore., where, he said, the practice began a quarter of a century ago.

"I'm willing to trade," the collector said, "but I don't know who else saves these."

A New Craze?

This may be the next baseball card craze. Who knows, 20 years from now, what a Vivian Higginbotham may be worth?

The collator operators, however, remain modest.

Ray Estrada of Buena Park, 17 years with Willamette, still thrills at instances such as when his godmother, having returned from an Albertson's, phoned excitedly: "I just saw your name on a bag!"

And Mike Chaney of Orange, who has been with the company 13 years, goes so far as to pause while he is writing his check at a supermarket counter. "I turn over the first bag to see who ran it, and I inspect the quality. Sometimes the cashier gives me a strange look."

However, inasmuch as Chaney is a 6-foot-5, 220-pound former nightclub bouncer, no one in the line protests.

The byline probably wasn't something Charles B. Stillwell of Philadelphia had in mind in 1883 when he patented the design for a machine that could make a paper container with a flat square bottom--often known now in the East as bags, but in the West as sacks.

Best of the Baggers

Nor did he have in mind the momentous annual event that happened this month. Inasmuch as this is a non-Olympics year, the next best thing occurred on Tuesday, when the fourth annual All-American Paper Grocery Sack Pack-Off was held in Chicago, sponsored by the American Paper Institute.

As play-by-play was described over a mike in a supermarket, finalists representing the best of grocery baggers nationwide stood at checkstands and packed 38 identical items into two bags.

A fitting tribute to Stillwell. It might be noted that 27 years after his breakthrough, a rugged "kraft" paper came on the scene, and the paper bag has since then remained dominant, although some markets have switched to plastic sacks.

"The bag is probably the only item a supermarket makes sure it never runs out of," David Carleton said by phone from New York City. He is manager of the Kraft Division of the American Paper Institute.

"And of all a market's items, the bag is generally the only thing given away."

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