In a McLean condo, thousands of bags tell the history of America

John Kelly
Columnist May 14

Consider the lowly bag, a device that exists to carry something else.

But is it really so lowly? After all, we start our lives inside one bag and take our leave inside another.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

The Museum of Bags in McLean, Va., doesn’t have an amniotic sac in its collection, but it does have a body bag. And it has just about every other kind of bag we may encounter between those two extremes: the simple paper bag your mom puts your sandwich in, the distinctive blue bag a Tiffany salesperson hands you your fiancée’s engagement ring in, the long plastic bag The Washington Post is hurled onto your driveway in.

“We have about 7,000 catalogued bags in the collection, plus another two or three thousand that we haven’t catalogued yet,” said Howard Forman, a co-founder of the private museum.

We were in the two-bedroom, 1,500-square-foot condo that Howard bought years ago thinking his son might want to move in after college. (What is a house but a big, rigid bag for us to live in?) His son had other ideas, which was good, since the Museum of Bags had outgrown Howard’s house, which is a convenient 15-minute drive away.


Howard Forman founded the Museum of Bags with his late wife, Lee. Thousands of bags are displayed in a McLean condo. Here, he holds a bag bearing a turkey print by pop artist Roy Lichtenstein. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)

Howard’s late wife, Lee Forman, started collecting bags 40 years ago. She was a graphic designer who was smitten by Bloomingdale’s shopping bags — not the department store’s now-iconic “little/medium/big brown bag” bags but its colorful, limited-edition bags.

“They were all done by supposedly famous designers,” said Howard, 65. “If you can figure out who they are.”

The Museum of Bags has 152 of what Howard calls “Bloomingdale’s objects,” including Bloomingdale’s bags and little tchotchkes that look like Bloomingdale’s bags.

“Not everything is a bag,” Howard said. Wooden shelves are covered with bag-shaped salt-and-pepper shakers, bag-shaped tea pots, lamps that look like paper bags but are ceramic, dresses sewn from bag-patterned fabric.

Howard opened an archival box full of bags and pulled out a non-bag: sheet music for the World War I-era ditty “Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag, and Smile, Smile, Smile.” (Emphasis added.)

In February 2007, Lee and Howard unveiled a virtual museum: www.museumofbags.org . “At the end of the month we found out she had cancer,” Howard said.

Lee died two years later, her dream of a brick-and-mortar Museum of Bags unrealized. Howard had long since retired, after selling the family wholesale liquor business, and now he devotes much of his free time to making sure the collection is well sorted. Elaine Weinstein, a friend he met through a widows and widowers support group, does some part-time cataloguing. Howard has just hired a full-time cataloguer, too.

They are confronted by every curator’s challenge: How do you describe something?

“It took me an hour to describe that one,” said Elaine, nodding toward a colorful tote bag sporting an image of the first lady. The catalogue description of Item 2012.002 begins:

“Coated plastic bag in pastel pinks and blues and patriotic red, white and blue with a picture of Michelle Obama in a red dress with white pearl necklace and earrings, swirling skirt, and red high heels in the center of the bag swinging on a swing holding gold ropes.”

It goes on in that vein for 700 words.

I asked Howard if anyone has more bags than he.

“Not that I know of,” he said. “I know the Cooper-Hewitt [National Design Museum in New York] has a bag collection that they show a little bit of sometimes. I know that the Newark library has bags in their collection. There is a museum of bags and purses in the Netherlands, but they’re mostly pocketbooks.”

Howard occasionally welcomes visitors to the bag-filled condo. He has two grown children, neither of whom are interested in taking on the Museum of Bags. His hope is that once the cataloguing is finished, the collection will go someplace it will be appreciated, even if that means breaking it up.

Perhaps the Smithsonian would be interested in the political bags. (Howard has at least one bag from every presidential campaign since 1948.) Some bags could go to an art museum. (He has bags that bear artwork created by Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, part of a 1964 exhibit called “American Supermarket.”)

Students of Washington’s retail history might be interested in the shopping bags from defunct stores: Garfinckel’s, Woodies, Hecht’s, Camalier & Buckley. The Museum of Bags has a bag from Peoples Drug, too (but not Dart Drug).

And Howard has celebrity bags: a record store bag signed by all four Beatles, a cheeseburger bag signed by Elvis Presley, a crumpled brown paper grocery bag that looks relatively mundane until you learn it was sat upon by 21 celebrities on Conan O’Brien’s show (including Peter Falk, Roseanne Barr and Tina Fey) and auctioned for charity for $5,350.

Rich or poor, famous or anonymous, paper or plastic, everybody needs a bag.

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