Airlines have taken our pleasures one by one: They've reduced our seating, removed our snacks, and killed the free drinks. A new economy has torn even Skymall from our clammy hands. But one glorious amenity remains: the great American vomit bag.
These bags aren't just a cautionary measure. They're a force for good in the world. People like Niek K. Vermuelen even collect them (he's a world record-holder for his vomit bag collection, in case you didn't already know).
But these vomit bags are so common that we never stop to ask the most important, nauseating questions: Why does every plane have them? Where did they come from? And why are they still around?
As commercial flight took off, airsickness was a big fear
Though there were a few passenger flights earlier, commercial aviation sputtered to life in the 1920s before taking off in the '50s. And one of the big anxieties was getting sick on the plane.
There were a couple of factors at work: Air travel was less comfortable than it is today, and, equally important, normal people were scared to do what only soldiers and professionals had done before. Conditions were primitive: In 1929, airlines had just decided not to give all passengers their own parachute, and seat belts were a rarity.
One problem was the air quality. That was a valid concern, since smells of gas and oil were likely to waft into the cabin, which led most experts to state that poor ventilation led to increased sickness while flying. In 1928, the New York Times proclaimed that airsickness could be cured through anti-airsickness fumes that mixed oxygen and a nice cinnamon scent, but the truth was that before the pressurized cabin became commonplace in the late '50s, air quality was likely to be irregular.
Other discomforts abounded, as well. Before the first pressurized jet liner in 1949, planes typically flew lower than they do today — about 5,000 feet up, compared with 35,000. That led to a lot of lurching and nausea due to the bumpier ride. That was compounded by psychological discomfort, which led the air travel–boosting Guggenheim Fund to claim in 1929 that improving confidence was the easiest way to reduce airsickness.
Unfortunately, even though the jet age helped with bumpy rides and funky air, it failed to usher in a nausea-free era. Experts had to make their goals more modest. By 1950, rather than minimizing the problem, they were recommending passengers eat lightly and lay off booze.
All that nausea required a hero to help. That hero was Gilmore T. Schjeldahl.
The thermoplastic bag comes to the nauseated traveler's rescue
As airplane technology was rapidly evolving, so was the world of plastics. And entrepreneur Gilmore T. Schjeldahl was at the forefront.
As the University of North Dakota writes (it holds his papers), Schjeldahl developed a new bag-making machine in his Minneapolis basement, with just $100 to start the business. His company expanded rapidly and experimented with technologies like adhesives and laminates, and Herb-Shelly Inc. quickly became a leader in the plastics industry.
One of its first products was 1949's "thermoplastic bag construction," a.k.a. the vomit bag. The process was originally intended as an innovation to make bags from flexible plastic material for holding food (the patent notes that bags could then be sealed with a hot iron). Needless to say, airlines found another application for the thermoplastic bag, and Herb-Shelly came along for the ride.
Schjeldahl's company went on to do far less nauseating things than the vomit bag, including creating one of the first communications satellites as well as other, more unusual inventions (like giant air-supported plastic domes for offices). The company was a huge success and is still in operation today — but it's the vomit bags that provide its most ubiquitous legacy.
Vomit bags used one gee-whiz technology to make another less scary
Fears about airsickness were probably a little overblown from the beginning, and once pressurized cabins came around in the '50s and '60s, they were certainly exaggerated. Yet all these years later, you still find vomit bags in every seat-back pocket.
The vomit bag was invented when it suddenly became possible to make a simple bag out of plastic that could hold liquids for a long period of time. And the rise of commercial flight perfectly coincided with that plastics revolution.
People were uncertain about flying, and, in some small way, the presence of a vomit bag contained that worry (also: vomit). Knowing it was there made going in the air a little less frightening.
Today it's probably a little bit of the same, even as flying comfort has improved significantly. Yes, motion sickness is real. But worry is the greater epidemic. And in that way, the vomit bag has become an unlikely security blanket.
Update: Gary Ferguson of RNPA Contrails sent along another great story of early air bags. It tells the story of Captain Joseph E. Kimm, a pilot who developed his own early vomit bag solutions in the 1920s and 1930s:
We made trips to the local grocery stores to get supplies of brown bags. This was really the beginning of the burp bag era. But brown paper bags were only efficient for a very few seconds. We learned this because we had the job of cleaning up if we missed. We learned very quickly that if we stood there with a bunch of brown bags looking over our passengers, and if we saw someone in trouble, we’d whip one out, you know, like the used to do in grocery stores, snap it open and put it in the passenger’s face. As soon as they used it we’d whip another one out and madly run with the first one to the back door, and we’d kick it open and throw the bag out.
Later, they came up with more complicated solutions:
Then we devised other methods. We got the Company to put linoleum on the sidewalls and on the floor. Then we got these little rubber squeegees about six or eight inches long, and dustpans. We got so we could squeegee everything down off the walls onto the floor and into the dustpan. There were quite a few innovations by the three of us because of the problems. There was no such thing as a waterproof burp bag as they have today. I really don’t want to dwell on the subject but I think it’s interesting, primitive as it was.