Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
Lee Foreman is bent over an open box, sifting through layers of packing materials. After a couple of minutes, she fishes out her new acquisition: a crumpled brown paper bag.
The flattened sack doesn’t look fit to hold a peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich, let alone to be wrapped in tissue paper for a trip to the post office. “The bag isuneventful,” she says.
But Foreman isn’t planning on tossing it. Instead, she looks up at her husband, Howard Foreman, who is standing next to her, and asks, “Should we get it insured?”
The bag, it turns out, owes its crumpled condition to the likes of Peter Falk, Tina Fey, and Jack and Kelly Osbourneall guests on various episodes of Late Night With Conan O’Brien. While waiting to take the stage, these stars all sat on this particular uneventful bag. A framed letter signed by all the famous sitters accompanies the bag, which the show donated to a charity auction.
The sat-on bag doesn’t particularly comport with Foreman’s container tastes. She goes for oddly shaped bags from Japanese department stores or totes made of unusual materials: Astroturf, for example. These days, though, Foreman is thinking less about what turns her on and more about what might attract others. When she bought the celebrity-seat bag, she says, she was thinking about what people might want to see in her museum of shopping bags. “It’s so unique I thought it would be a draw,” she says.
The museum doesn’t exist yet. Foreman has just begun searching for space in D.C. Several years ago, she realized she had something valuable after a visitor remarked that her collection would look right at home at a Sotheby’s auction. Then, a couple of years ago, she says, the idea for a museum “bubbled up.” Before moving forward, however, she “tested out” her concept with as many museum pros as she could find, including a former employee of the National Museum of American History. “We had her over to see if we had enough for a museum. She said we did,” says Foreman.
Since then, she’s hired two people to catalog her collection, drawn up a logo, and secured a publicist and a museum expert. No mall rat, she thinks, will be able to resist.
For now, the “temporary museum” that she’s set up in the apartment above the garage of her McLean, Va., home is a laboratory for different display styles. Framed bags hang on the walls. Others sit on shelves or hang from pegs. Foreman walks over to a kitchen cupboard and flips it open to reveal scores of miniature bag-shaped ceramics. The largest piece of her collection sits in the corner of the living rooma television cabinet custom-made to look like a brown paper bag, complete with pinking along the top edge.
“One of the reasons we bought this property was because it has this space,” she says, sweeping her eyes across her vast holdings. “In our old house, the kitchen and the family room were practically unusable because they were filled with bags.”
Foreman’s bag fetish dates back to the ’70s, when she worked as a graphic designer. Like other shopping-bag connoisseurs, she covets the high-end models, constructed of glossy paper with paper-twist or cloth handles and adorned with a printed logo, text, or image.
What got her and many other collectors hooked were the special promotions bags that Bloomingdale’s produced several times a year between 1961 and 1991. To keep the designs fresh, the department store commissioned the likes of photographer Richard Avedon and architect Michael Graves. Foreman has dozens of the Bloomingdale’s classics. “I would love to own the entire series,” she says.
Among her collection of Bloomie’s bags is one of the rarest: a bag designed by fashion designer Franco Moschino. The Italian government wasn’t too happy with it. It read: “In Pizza We Trust.” The chain pulled the bag at the government’s request.
Bloomingdale’s campaign helped put shopping bags in the pantheon of great American design. In 1979, the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum organized an exhibition called “Bandboxes and Shopping Bags.”
The modern shopping bagmade of paper with cord handlesdates to 1907, when a company called Interstate Packaging assembled the first one by hand. For the next 50 years, most shopping bags were simple kraft-paper containers bearing a store name, sometimes accompanied by an image pasted or silk-screened on the sides. It wasn’t until the ’60s that advances in color printing transformed the humblest paper tote into a portable billboard.
Since then, people have enjoyed gawking at them, whether they flash a Woolworth’s logo or a Warhol soup can.
The Newark, N.J., public library, for instance, has mounted an exhibition of shopping bags every few years since the ’70s, each time featuring selections from its collection of more than 1,000 bags. The most recent exhibition closed in June. “We’ve had six exhibits now. We fill the whole gallery. And they’re enormously popular,” says curator William Dane, who links the appeal of the items to nostalgia. “I think that people look at them and think they have some at home like them. Or they recall the good old days when they went shopping somewhere….The bag brings that all back.”
Foreman relies on an even more basic instinct in acquiring bags: “gut feeling.” With the museum in the works, however, she’s in the midst of drafting a collections policy. That means setting some basic standards. “Are we going to collect a bag from every grocery store in the world?” she says. “The answer is no.”
Foreman’s collection agents consist largely of family and friends who know her passion for bags. When she spots a rare specimen on the street, however, she has no qualms about pursuing her quarry. “I once had someone follow someone in New York and ask them where they got the bag,” says Foreman.
Most people are happy to relinquish their totes to posterity. But once in a while, no amount of begging will suffice. “I was at a store in Charlottesville that had a magnificent bag. [The store owner] was using it as a trash can. I’ve been there twice. I asked her if she would give it to me, but she refused. It was made of brass….It was really beautiful. I still would like to have it.”
Some folks donate only on condition of anonymity. “My husband was outside. A woman in a van drove up to the house, put something in the mailbox and left. He went in the mail box and found a bag from Japan,” says Foreman. “I never knew who did it.”
Foreman acquired her favorite bag on eBay. It isn’t from a store, and it isn’t very flashy. It’s a simple white paper model with the words “Register and Vote for John F. Kennedy” printed in red and blue lettersa leftover from his 1960 presidential campaign. Its value for Foreman, at least, is partly sentimental. “He drove past my house once when I was a kid,” she says. “When I see the bag, I get the chills.”
From another box, Howard Foreman pulls out a brilliant red-orange paper bag. In oversize type, it reads: “Frank Sinatra’s Cal Neva,” referring to the Lake Tahoe resort that Sinatra briefly owned in the early ’60s. Lee Foreman puts a hand up in front of her eyes. “God, that’s ugly,” she says, looking away. “It hurts my eyes.”
Lee Foreman prefers the simple design that appears on a portion of a Macy’s bag from 1885. It is the oldest item in her collection. Next to the store’s address is a message imploring customers to “please report at once any incivility or inattention on the part of any employee of the house.”
Foreman has yet to take the Macy’s piece out of its plastic wrapper. She’s afraid it will disintegrate if she does. Another valuable findher 1966-vintage Warhol Tomato Soup Can baghangs on a wall in a frame. Foreman says she and her husband are just starting to school themselves on the art of conservation. For now, she says, “we use common sense.” They keep the temperature at 72 degrees. The blinds are always drawn. And cooking in the apartment kitchen is forbidden.
Foreman at one point wanted her museum to host a permanent exhibit on political bags, featuring several from her archive. Among them is a campaign carryall for New York Gov. Thomas Dewey, who lost to Harry S Truman in 1948; another paper sack advertises candidate Abe Beame, the mayor of New York City in the ’70s.
Foreman learned recently, however, that a more seasoned exhibitor displays his bags under glass for a maximum of three months at a time to protect them from fading. She says she’s started to rethink her original plan.
Foreman may have to make yet more concessions to reality. Last week, she took her first tour of possible sites with a real-estate agent. “I’d like to have it by the MCI Center,” she muses. But prime downtown commercial real estate is priceyrunning around $40 a square foot. And museums demand infrastructure that a spread of cubicles doesn’t. The added cost of customizing a space can run as high as $300 a square foot, says Larry Kunkel, president and chief economist of Kunkel Strategic Services, a Warwick, R.I.-based museum-planning consulting firm.
Unless it’s a hall of fame, small specialty museums can be harder to open than ones with a broader appeal, says Kunkel. City officials might not regard a museum of shopping bags as an engine of economic development deserving of public financing. And it might not attract a cult following the way, say, the Liberace Museum in Las Vegas does.
“She’s got a tough row to hoe,” Kunkel says.
Whatever the obstacles, though, Foreman is determined not to bag the idea. “The plan is to get it open sometime in the next five years,” she says.
Until then, she will look for space and tend to her collection. In the back room, she kneels to get a closer look at two ceramic bags sitting on a wire shelf. “It never occurred to me before, but I have two of the same thing in a different color,” she says picking up one of them. “The one next to it is the same, just lighter.”
She puts it back next to its twin. Still a keeper. “I see the shopping bag as something fresh and spirited. I see it as mixing the classic and the unique,” she says. “It’s not going to go away, because how else will people go into a store and carry things out?” CP