What is a Barf Bag?

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  • Written By: Michael Pollick
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Images By: n/a, Infinityphoto, Andres Rodriguez
  • Last Modified Date: 09 October 2019
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Edison may have had his light bulb, Bell may have had his telephone, but only Gilmore T. Schjeldahl, a self-taught inventor from North Dakota, has his "barf bag." Mr. Schjeldahl is generally credited with creating the first plastic-lined airsickness bag, which debuted on Northwest Oriental Airlines planes in 1949. This wasn't the first barf bag ever used by airsick passengers or crews on commercial flights, but at least it was the first one designed specifically for that purpose.

A barf bag, also known as an airsickness bag or sick bag, is a lined paper bag generally stored in the same holders as in-flight magazines and other airline-provided propaganda. If a passenger suddenly becomes nauseated because of motion sickness, claustrophobia or an anxiety attack, the barf bag provides a more discreet option for vomiting.

During the early days of air travel, motion or air sickness was a common occurrence, since the planes were generally smaller and more susceptible to the effects of air turbulence. Commercial airlines found themselves faced with a significant problem, since the sight and sound of vomiting passengers could prove detrimental for future business, not to mention the problem of keeping the plane hygienic. Various types of disposable containers were tried on early commercial flights, but it wasn't until Schjeldahl developed a plastic-lined paper bag that a suitable "barf bag" solution was found.


Schjeldahl himself was not working on a future airsickness bag at the time, however. He was employed by the Armour meat company to work on new food packaging featuring the new polyethylene plastic. A plastic-lined bag originally designed for food packaging proved to be an ideal solution for the airsickness problem faced by commercial airlines, so Schjeldahl's invention became the prototype for future airsickness bags everywhere.

Because many modern passenger planes are larger and passengers experience less in-flight turbulence, a much smaller percentage of flyers have become airsick. Airlines still provide airsickness bags, but quite often those bags contain other information, such as emergency procedures. Some modern airsickness bags are printed with games and puzzles, or at least scoreboards for card games.

There is actually a subculture of airline memorabilia collectors who seek out unused airsickness bags as part of their collections. The original Schjeldahl-designed bags are popular, as well as bags from foreign airlines and defunct domestic airlines such as Eastern. One barf bag collector is said to have over 5,000 items in his personal collection, and collectors routinely meet to display their recent acquisitions or swap with others.


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Post 6

They really have airline collectors who collect unused barf bags?

I guess this doesn't surprise me, but I had never thought of it before. Now that the barf bags contain other printed information, other than just a plain bag, I can see how these would be valuable to collectors like this.

I just don't know how proud I would be to say that I had a barf bag collection at home.

Some collectors are extremely serious about their stuff though. When were at Disneyland, they had a Disney pin collectors meeting going on, and once those collectors got in the park, they were literally racing to get to the place where they were meeting and swapping.

Post 5

@John57 - Yes, I have had to use a barf bag while flying - more than once. After this happened the second time, I told myself I would never let it happen again.

It was embarrassing, and I felt bad for those around me. Of course, I was sitting next to people I didn't know and that made it worse.

Those seats are so close together that you can hardly even take a breath without people noticing. Imagine how you would feel if you were throwing up?

My stomach easily gets upset, so now I always take something to prevent this before I even get on an airplane. So far this has worked, and I haven't had to use a barf bag since I started doing that.

Post 4

Has anyone ever had to use a barf bag on an airplane?

Thankfully I haven't, but I have been sitting next to someone who has. This is the closest I have ever come to using one myself.

I know they are embarrassed by it and have no control over it, but this is not a pleasant situation for anyone.

I also wonder how many messes flight attendants have had to clean up when a barf bag wasn't used.

Once we were flying back from Hawaii, so this was not a short flight, and a kid threw up. They got it cleaned up right away, but the smell was bad in such tight quarters like that.

Post 3

Thankfully, I've never had to use a barf bag on a plane. But I almost did several times in small planes because of turbulence and was grateful to have the barf bag available in case something happened. Mr. Schjeldahl was a smart man for thinking to make a bag especially for people who get sick on planes.

I suffered from motion sickness for several months last year and it would hit me when I least expected it, on the subway or the bus. I was in a fix because I couldn't find anything to vomit into if I had to. Once I used a plastic bag I had in my purse which turned out to have a hole in it. You have no idea how embarrassed I was. I wish buses and subways had special barf bags just like planes do.

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