This article originally appeared in The Culture Issue of APEX Experience.
The dawn of the Internet facilitated many things – the resurgence of cats as a species, a new digital mode of commerce and a forum for a lesser-known group of collectors, collectivity known as “baggists.” If you look baggist up in the dictionary, oddly enough, you won’t find it there. If it were, it might read: Baggist, noun: a person who collects airsickness bags as a hobby. Surfing on the World Wide Web in the 1990s, Paul Mundy, owner of more than 2,600 such specimens, found that he wasn’t the only one with a penchant for collecting sick sacks. In fact, there were many others out there, including an American collector, Steve “Upheave” Silberberg, who runs Air Sickness Bag Virtual Museum.
NO BARFING MATTER
Silberberg explains how the hobby began for him: “I was on a long, dull flight from Boston to San Francisco, saw the bag and thought, I’ll bet nobody collects these. I was wrong. The correct statement would have been, I’ll bet nobody desirable to women collects these.” Most baggists, he says, are middle-aged men. For unknown reasons, a large percentage of collectors tend to be from Germany. “I think Germans have a heightened sense of keeping things in order. I’m not German,” quips Mundy, who, as it happens, currently lives in Germany.
Puns (and a good sense of humor) are rife in the baggist community, but barf, vomit, puke – or whichever term you find easiest to swallow – is certainly not. In fact, emesis is the nemesis of most collectors. Baggists generally prefer bags in flat, pristine condition. That means no chewing gum, no coffee stains, no crinkles, notes or scribbles – and definitely no vomitus. The majority of baggists snatch up a few bags on their flights, then build up their caches by trading their spares, making the hobby one of the more affordable ones out there, though some airsickness bags have gone for as much as $600 on eBay.
“There once was a flyer from Cali,
Whose drinking was causing a folly;
His stomach a-whirl,
He needed to hurl,
But the bags had been taken by Pauly.”
– David Shomper
A MIXED BAG
A glance through baggists’ websites is as if looking through a virtual museum of commercial air travel. Bags of all sizes, colors and designs, from every airline you can imagine and many that you haven’t even heard of, arranged alphabetically – uniquely chronicling the rise and fall of airline empires. But in the non-virtual world, many collections are tucked away, protected by plastic sleeves and stored in ring binders. “I got into trouble once with my wife. It was Christmas and I decided to display a few. She came back from wherever she was and… We’re still married, but only just,” Mundy jokes. “Some people do display them. I think they’re all single.”
The rarest bags tend to be the oldest ones, along with (soon-to-be-rare) bags from airlines that no longer exist. But most collectors seem to unanimously agree that the baggist’s holy grail is the Space Shuttle emesis bag, a wearable sick sack made of special durable fabric. Silberberg is one of the few collectors to own the coveted bag, along with Niek Vermeulen, a Dutch baggist who’s held the world record for largest collection for the past 45 years, with more than 6,500 bags – all of which are currently up for auction. “I am willing to find and meet my successor,” Vermeulen shared with us exclusively.
DESIGN FOR CHUNKS
In 2000, on a flight from the UK to Sydney, Oz Dean, a creative multimedia designer also known as forcefeed:swede, had a moment of revelation. “I kind of realized that sick bags are really, really boring,” he explains. “And I just felt like there was an opportunity to use that space as a canvas.” In the early dot-com years, designers collaborated and participated in online competitions, often centered around designing T-shirts or desktop wallpapers. Dean pitched the airsickness bag challenge to the community, launched the website designforchunks.com, and the submissions came, er, spewing in. “Designers would proudly display the fact that they got into the online gallery. It was kind of odd,” he says, laughing.
Over the course of its short run, the website gallery received hundreds of submissions. But eventually Dean felt that the website had run its course and he shut it down. “Then out of nowhere, Virgin Atlantic hit me up and said, ‘Hey, we want to do this for real on our airplanes. Are you up for it?” With his support, Virgin launched a call for submissions, culling the 600 entries into a final top 20 that would be released as limited edition collector’s items.
“We wanted this to be a thing where collectors would literally seek out every single one. That happened, and it was amazing,” says Dean. “Packs started turning up on eBay and people were furiously collecting the bags. It was incredible.” In addition to the 500,000 bags that were randomly distributed on flights, 200 limited edition collector’s boxes were also released. Virgin Atlantic followed up the successful campaign in 2005 with a special set of four bags promoting the Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith movie and video game.
More recently, in 2014, Qantas Airways launched a similar campaign after being inspired by a passenger whose sick bag art impressed the flight staff. The airline encouraged passengers to share a photo of their own original sick bag art with the hashtag #qantasblankcanvas. Jo Boundy, head of Digital and Entertainment for the airline, says, “From boarding passes, napkins to luggage tags, we have a number of perfect blank canvases for passengers to create their own in-flight art.”
RISE AND FALL OF THE BARF BAG
Airsickness has significantly declined since the bygone days of air travel when early airline cabin crews often included a nurse, and instructions on the paper bags asked passengers to not throw its contents out the window (and you thought blue ice was bad). But also in decline – apart from the odd, sporadic campaign – is any aesthetic consideration of the bag’s design. “You have to feel sorry for the Americans,” says Mundy, sympathetically. “American airlines don’t produce very creative bags.” For Alaskan-based collector Bruce Kelly, that pain is all too real: “The scourge of the hobby is the increasing use of generic bags, particularly in the US. Generics are threatening to ruin the hobby.”
“The scourge of the hobby is the increasing use of generic bags.” – Bruce Kelly
But as Stathis Kefallonitis, founder and president of branding.aero warns, the baggist hobby isn’t the only thing in jeopardy. “A lot of bags are hardly used. So if they’re just sitting there and they’re plain, they serve no purpose.” Kefallonitis blames cost and the increasing growth of alliances for the movement toward plain uniformity, but he argues that thinking creatively about motion discomfort bags – a term he recommends as more palatable – is worth the investment.
In the past, the bags have doubled for airlines as photo mailers, advertisements, containers for food leftovers, seat reservation signs and puzzles, among other things. Kefallonitis suggests that ultra-low-cost carriers use the bag as a means of revenue and that more-established carriers should use the bag as a way to bond with their passengers through some form of extended use. Vermeulen thinks bags could be specially designed for kids, among other options. Dean suggests it might be a good space for entrepreneurs to make their elevator pitch to possible investors – especially the bags in first class.
Either way, “It’s a neglect of a brand-building space,” observes Mundy. “Put a logo or a joke on it.” Indeed, there are some flyers out there who would like to add that next bag to their collection.