Tom Ross: What did we ever do without Hefty bags?

Oregon Trail pioneers went sans Ziplocs


Tom Ross

Tom Ross' column appears in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 970-871-4205 or

Find more columns by Tom here.

— Have you ever stopped to wonder how the pioneers made it through the holidays, back in the olden days, before plastic food storage bags were invented?

Where did they store the leftover oyster stew, sorghum candy and venison mincemeat pie?

I imagine it must have been heck for my ancestors who spent month after month on the Oregon Trail without the convenience of the Hefty OneZip in the quart size. Where did they keep their leftover prairie chicken stir-fry? In a crock?

I don't know what things are like at your starter castle, but in my household, we go through more Hefty's, GLAD Bags and Ziplocs than any environmentally responsible adult has a right to. I guess there are two kinds of people in the world - those who wash their Ziplocs and re-use them and those who toss them out without a care in the world.

Ziplocs and Hefty OneZip's, of course, are the competition of the GLAD sandwich bag with the fold-over enclosure system. They still work, but were low-tech, to say the least.

Today, GLAD touts its double press and seal system for its food storage bags. And the company is high-tech when it comes to garbage bags - GLAD's new Force/Flex bags stretch to help prevent rips and tears. I just wish they would come up with trash bags that are both bear-proof and magpie-proof. Get working on it, would ya?

My ancestors, and even my own parents, grew up without plastic bags. What a hassle.

On the farm in Central Oregon, my mother's family went into town to the ice plant, where they purchased a 30-pound block of ice and returned to Larklane to put it in the ice box. They covered containers of leftovers with waxed paper.

However, my great-grandmother Mattie Elliott didn't even have an icebox. What she had was a dirt cellar. When she wanted to keep leftovers, Mattie would place them in a bowl on the cellar steps, where it was cooler than it was in the house.

She grew much of what she ate in her garden. If the food was about to spoil, she fed it to the hogs.

Now, about the Oregon Trail - Mattie's grandparents, Richard M. and Robinette May, made the great migration across the prairies in a covered wagon. And they accomplished this feat without the convenience of Ziplocs or Hefty bags. You could say they suffered for it.

I gained some insight into the methods they used to store food from a book called "Wagon Wheel Kitchens" by Jacqueline Williams and published by the University Press of Kansas.

The Oregon Trail pioneers actually made use of kitchen containers made of "India rubber." Often, they would cover foodstuffs with oiled cloth. Flour was packaged in cotton cloth and then wrapped in smoke-tanned buffalo or elk skins, according to Williams.

At my house, we use food storage bags to freeze individual hamburger patties, cover half-empty cans of dog food, marinate steaks and coat chunks of stew meat with flour and pepper.

Ziplocs are the only way to keep biscuits fresh overnight. I leave for the office in the morning with my breakfast in a hefty OneZip. I pour dry cereal, raw nuts and dried fruit into the bag and munch it at the stoplights.

Of course, you can do so much more with Hefty bags than just microwaving leftovers and storing produce.

If you think about it, it would be impossible to get through airport security with your 3-ounce containers of shampoo and cologne without OneZips.

The folks at GLAD, Ziploc and Hefty can be proud of their contributions to national security and personal hygiene.

Steamboat Pilot & Today News Editor Allison Miriani once learned how to make a holiday wreath out of food storage bags. You just bend a wire coat hangar into a circle and knot tightly-bunched plastic bags around the perimeter.

"You can even put candy in the bags!" Miriani told me.

I can't wait to get home and try that one.

I readily confess, however, that I never go into the wilderness without a good supply of plastic bags. I keep my survival kit in a Ziploc and break the essential contents of my fly fishing vest into another bag. And I always slide a fresh trash bag into the side pocket of my backpack. In case of rain, a full-size trash bag slips perfectly over the pack, allowing me to lean it against a tree and keep it dry without dragging it in into the tent with me.

How long do you estimate it will be before some product engineer at Hefty's North Pole division invents OneZip holiday gift bags in green and red candy stripes?

We would never have to wrap holiday gifts again! And that would eliminate suffering for this pioneer.


Oswald 9 years, 5 months ago

What an interesting and informative article. There couldn't possibly be a better or more important topic for a reporter to spend his time writing about. Food storage bags can even be used to cover half-empty dog food containers! I'd like to quote a particularly poignant passage: "You can even put candy in the bags!". Amazing! I'd like to personally thank Tom Ross for his important, meaningful contribution to journalism and the community. One could even go as far as to say that he's doing God's work.


Requires free registration

Posting comments requires a free account and verification.