What, exactly, are SOS bags?

By: Mya Koch
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SOS! OK, now that I have your attention, I’m not really in need of any help. Instead, I’m here to offer some. No doubt as a business owner, you have folks needing to take items out of your store. And for more than 130 years, SOS bags – or Self Opening Sacks – have come to the rescue.

Invented in 1882 by Ohio-born mechanical engineer Charles Stilwell, SOS bags have been a favorite for those many years for its ability to stand and easily be filled. This invention improved the store owners’ and shoppers’ experience and led to the creation of handled shopping bags in 1912.

According to Ohio History Central, “Charles Stilwell was a resident of Fremont, Ohio. He fought in the American Civil War in the Union military. Following the conflict, Stilwell returned to Fremont, where he embarked upon a career as a mechanical engineer.

sos bag patent

Stilwell dedicated his free time to manufacturing an improved paper bag. Paper or grocery bags already existed, but they were not easy to fold or to store. They also could not stand on their own because of their V-shaped bottom. On June 12, 1883, the U.S. Patent Office granted Stilwell a patent for a machine that manufactured a square-bottom bag. The bag also had pleated sides. The square bottom allowed the bags to stand on their own, while the pleats permitted easy folding and storage of the bag when it was not in use. …

Stilwell’s invention dramatically improved the paper bag, making it much more desirable to American consumers. In essence, Stilwell’s bag was the precursor of modern-day paper bags. In 2000, Americans used approximately forty billion grocery bags based on Stilwell’s original design.”

Take a look at Stilwell’s patent.

sos paper lunch bag sizesBy the pound

When you visit and look for an S.O.S. bag, you’ll see them referred to by “pounds,” for example, 8# SOS bags. This naming convention has its roots in history, too.

Back in the day, neighborhood grocers actually would fill your bags with dry ingredients such as flour and sugar for purchase. A 4# bag would fit just about 4 pounds of sugar and leave enough room at the top to be able to fold the bag down to seal it. Back then, they even referred to “barrel sizes,” which would fit about “1/6th of a barrel of flour.”

Interestingly – and if you’ve used them before you know this – the thickness of the paper used to make the S.O.S. bag increases along with the size of the bag to be able to support more weight.

Standard S.O.S. bags come in white or kraft paper and often many colors as well.

Grease-resistant S.O.S. sacks have a coating that makes them not only heavier, but resistant to oils. These are best for donuts, tortilla chips and fries, to name a few.

S.O.S. bags also come in what’s known as a “hardware” bag. These will hold up to a pound of nails just fine.

variety of sos bag typesSpecial styles cover all needs

Let’s take a closer look at a few of the special types of S.O.S. bags we offer:

  • As previously mentioned, grease-resistant S.O.S. sacks will protect food – and your client’s hands, car seats and clothing. Available in three sizes, they prevent messes while being made from 100-percent recycled paper.
  • Windowed candy / bakery bags are fantastic for point-of-purchase display, allowing your customers to see the product inside. Best of all, they’re grease-resistant, too. They’re available in kraft and white and sized at 4#, 6# and 8#. These are great for movie theaters, promotions, cookies, snacks and many other uses.
  • Perfect for lunches, bakery items and snacks, the double wax S.O.S. bag also is available in 4#, 6# and 8# versions. They stand up on their own to fill and keep food items fresh. With their superior grease resistance, they also can be used to freeze foods without the extra step of additional wrapping.
  • Sometimes the best things come in small packages, especially when you’re in the mood for fries, chips or a fresh-made bagel. That’s where our snack sacks come in. Available in two sizes, they’ll hold just the right amount of tater tots, onion rings, chicken nuggets or even berries. They’re poly-lined for grease resistance and fold flat to easily tuck away in your storage room. They work great for breakfast sandwiches and small burgers, too.

different paper lunch bag colorsA couple more stellar features of SOS bags

  • Many have a thumb notch to make them easy to open and fill. Just pinch the top and flick your arm downward and voila! Ready to go.
  • They come in a variety of color options to compliment your brand. The white option provides for a clean, classic and elegant look. The kraft is the most eco-friendly and offers a more rustic appearance. In addition, unique colors can match just about any color scheme or different colors can even be used to designate size. Check out all the colors here.

wide variety of paper lunch sacksSustainable, eco-friendly, recyclable

S.O.S. bags are a great choice to help our environment. Let’s take a look at why.

* Most S.O.S. bags are recyclable, since they’re made of paper. The natural brown kraft version is the most eco-friendly option since it’s made using post-consumer content. White S.O.S. bags, while still recyclable, often are bleached or made with “virgin” fibers.

* Window bags are recyclable if the plastic window is removed.

* Many grease-resistant bags actually are PFAS free, which is becoming more common. Per- and Poly-fluoralkyl substances (PFAS) are a group of chemicals used to make coatings and products that resist heat, oil, stains, grease and water. Some studies have associated them with cancer, liver damage and increased risk of asthma if used extensively and over time.

top of paper lunch bagWhy do SOS. bags have a serrated top?

This saw-tooth pattern at the top of the bag not only makes it easier to open and pick up. It can help to prevent paper cuts, too, since flat edges tend to be sharper to the touch.

In addition, smooth paper edges tend to stick together. The small “teeth” created by the serrated cut bend just enough to give some separation between layers.

custom printed sos bagEasily customizable S.O.S. bags are a hit

No reason your fancy food should have a Plain Jane presentation. We make customizing your S.O.S. bags a breeze at

With a simple, one-color design, we can hot stamp your bags with your brand or logo right here in house. If you want something more complex that showcases all of your colors, that’s no problem either. We will help you through the whole process.

In fact, we pride ourselves on becoming a partner to you throughout it all. See what we mean on our Customization page.

A variety of options. Quality. Presentation. Customer Service. It’s all in the bag!

Mya L Koch is a Sales Order Specialist for who has vast experience as a journalist, writer and editor for publications such as The Wilmington Star-News and Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, where she managed staffs of young writers and photographers and helmed daily, monthly and annual publications seen throughout the region. Her writings have been published in magazines, newspapers and most recently in a hard-cover book for the national Bring Music Home initiative. She has extensive experience as an editor, manager and in retail sales. She welcomes your ideas and suggestions for her blog post as part of the BABCOR Packaging / team.

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