What is the Origin of the Doggie Bag?

Posted on 13 Nov 2012 21:32

Have you ever been slightly embarrassed by asking for a doggie bag in a restaurant? Well, you shouldn't be, really. Is it your fault if the establishment serves food in ridiculous proportions? And is it not proper that you do not wish to waste food? The answer to the first question is, no, it is not. The answer to the second is, yes, it is absolutely proper for you to not wish to see food thrown out! But a bit of embarrassment has always been possible, as people don't want to be seen as cheap or miserly. Today, the term doggie bag is a little white lie that persists even though we have no intention of giving the leftovers to our dog, and the container may not be a "bag" at all. Whether the doggie bag was originally about bringing home leftovers or whether it was born out of a desire to curb embarrassment is impossible to know for certain.

The doggie bag (or doggy bag) tradition probably did not start at just one restaurant or at one specific time. Rather, it most likely developed independently around the nation in the 1940's as World War II raged on and wasting leftover steak bones, or anything else, wasn't on the menu. According to an article in Smithsonian.com1, cafés in San Francisco and Hotels in Seattle started providing waxed paper bags for customers to take home leftovers for the dog, and restaurants across the nation followed suit. However, there is another doggie bag origin story that lays the credit on one restaurant. This restaurant not only gave grease-proof doggie bags, but bags which actually had a picture of a dog on them. Not only that, but there was even a poem on the bag, although not a very good one.

According to this story, the doggie bag was born in 1949 at Dan Stampler's Steak Joint restaurant on Greenwich Avenue in New York, whose customers would often ask for a bag to take home leftovers to give to their dog. Although the sensible thing to do would be to cut down on the size of the steaks, or perhaps cut down on the size of the side dishes, Sampler wanted to encourage his customers to take home the leftovers. He new that many customers were embarrassed by this sometimes, so he began to encourage them to take home the leftover "bone" for the family dog.

He created a bag with a picture of his Scottish terrier on it and called it a doggie bag, which the Bagcraft Corporation of Chicago started manufacturing them for general use in restaurants. The bags were greaseproof so that no other container was needed. A bit later Jane Meister, the wife of the co-founder of Bagcraft, wrote a poem that appeared on the bags and subsequently was reprinted over 150 million times:

Oh where, oh where have your leftovers gone?
Oh where, oh where can they be?
If you've had all you can possibly eat,
Please bring the rest home to me!!

Apologies to the family, but that is one stinker of a poem. Around the poem appeared five happy dogs and above the dogs appeared the words: "This special greaseproof bag is provided with the compliments of your host."


image by Julia K via flickr


image by Julia K via flickr

Some sources claim that Stampler did not really think that his customers wished to take home the leftovers to their dogs, but that he only called them doggie bags to save them embarrassment. This and other stories are part of a general conclusion that the term "doggie bag" is and always was the presumption that the leftovers were intended for the family dog, but that they were actually for the people to finish.

Another contender for the original doggie bag is Lawry's the Prime Rib in Beverly Hills, California, which supposedly began providing doggie bags for leftover bones just after World War II.

Nowadays, the doggie bag is rarely a bag, but a foam or cardboard container, sometimes with the establishment's logo printed on them for advertising. Of course, the containers themselves might still be placed inside bags. Some restaurants make this into an art form, such as by constructing fancy aluminum foil shapes, such as the classic swan. The doggie bag is not usually done in other countries and many foreign visitors to the U.S. seem to think this practice is somewhat appalling. It is hard to know just why but it is at least partially due to distaste for the wasteful over-large portions often served in America. To be fair, if the first doggie bags were really meant for leftover bones to be given the family pet, a prudent step in scarce times, then such distaste should be reserved for what the doggie bag has become, rather than what it was meant to be. Also, it is ironic that most of the world looks on Americans as wasteful and then beats us up when we show a bit of frugality!

Should You Ask for a Doggie Bag on a Date?

This is not an etiquette blog, nor does it have any pretensions to being one, however, the answer to that question is, generally, NO. Do not ask for a doggie bag while on a dinner date, whether you pay for the meal or not. If you do, you may very well not get a second date. By the time it is a safe bet to ask for a doggie bag you will have been dating the person long enough for it not to be called a "date." If you paid for the meal, you may want to ask the other person if they would like to get a doggie bag. However, keep in mind that you are presenting a conundrum to them, as they will probably be trying to figure out if you "really" want them to, or if you are testing them, etc. The best policy, in my opinion, is to leave it off the table (pun intended). A casual outing with friends, though, is different, especially when everyone is paying their own way.

1. Rhodes, Jesse. "Smithsonian.com." Unwrapping the History of the Doggie Bag Comments. Smithsonian Institution, 25 Jan. 2011. Web. 14 Nov. 2012. <http://blogs.smithsonianmag.com/food/2011/01/unwrapping-the-history-of-the-doggie-bag/>.
2. Stern, Jane, and Michael Stern. The Lexicon of Real American Food. Guilford, CT: Lyons, 2011.
3. Peterson, Gloria. The Art of Professional Connections: Dining Strategies for Building and Sustaining Business Relationships. Tucson: Wheatmark, 2012, 91.
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