In Praise of Brown Paper

by Mary Reed

I speak today not of grocery sacks, but of brown paper.

Stiff, shiny brown paper such as was once far more common, whether torn
from the big roll on a shop counter to enshroud purchased items or as
wrapping for the occasional parcel brought by the posty.

Most of us have been aware of the usefulness of brown paper since our
nursery days. After all, didn’t Jack get his injuries treated with vinegar and
brown paper after tumbling down from that hilltop whence he went with Jill to
obtain a pail of water?

As older children we saved brown paper. Flattened, cut into appropriate size,
and stitched together on my mother’s old treadle Singer sewing machine,
the sheets were transformed into a scrapbook. We used flour and water
paste to stick in our collections of cut-outs from Christmas cards and
magazines, not to mention portraits of favourite stars from cinematic
publications which, strangely, were printed in only two colours. Sometimes
we created pictures of rooms featuring wildly out of scale furniture
snipped from old catalogues. Like many other children, and to mangle the
country and western song, we were recycling and scrapbooking before
recycling and scrapbooking were cool!

Later still, brown paper was useful for temporary jackets for school
books, which had to be returned in good condition at the end of the
school year. There were some in my form, I regret to say, whose brown
paper covered books of shall we say racier reading than algebra or

Despite a long history with brown paper, however, it was not
until I read mysteries that I learnt that a whiff of the smoke from a
smouldering brown paper roll containing a common material
available from the chemist — in the old days at least — made pheasants
so dizzy they fell off the bough into the poacher’s hands.

And speaking of smouldering brown paper, another matter providentially hidden
from us youngsters was George Formby’s shocking confession. Singing in his
broad Lancashire accent, he revealed to the world he had smoked brown paper
without becoming ill since he parted his hair in the middle.

Our ignorance of this fact was probably just as well for the Reed hearth rug.

Mary Reed is the co-author of the John the Lord Chamberlain mysteries set in sixth century Byzantium. The current entry is Nine for the Devil.

You can also follow Mary on Twitter.

8 Responses to In Praise of Brown Paper

  1. I certainly remember the roll of brown paper that the grocer/butcher would use to wrap up meat that was being purchased, but don’t recall having brown paper at home. However, I do recall cutting apart the brown paper bags that supermarkets used to pack up grocery purchases and then using that paper to make school book covers just as you described. In fact, my own kids did the same thing to cover their books until they decided that it was cooler to purchase fancy stretch plastic book covers.

  2. Mary, you always amaze me with the originality of your entries. I think you should do one about the merits of a sack of flour. It can form a paste for sticking wrapping paper. It’s terrific modeling clay for jewelry. It’s a godsend for kids out in a yard because they can build all sorts of things.

  3. Uhh, Bex, have you considered roasting marshmallows over a brown paper fire? It just might turn that cover you have in mind for your sewing machine psychedelic! Thanks for the ideas, Mary.

  4. Now you’ve given me a great idea! I was toying with the idea recently of making a cover for my portable sewing machine that has its home in my dining room. I am sick of looking at it so I was thinking of sewing some sort of a cover, like a tea cosy, for it. I am never without a giant roll of brown craft paper because I use it to send packages in the mail, so now I’m thinking of making a cover for my sewing machine, ON the sewing machine, out of my heavy-duty brown paper! How cool would that be? Thanks for the idea!

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