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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Meet the people collecting airplane barf bags

One man’s (unused) motion-sickness bag is another’s treasure

( and Courtesy of the Air Sickness Bag Virtual Museum/Washington Post Illustration)

Steve Silberberg was flying from Boston to San Francisco as a college student in 1982 when he took note of the small bag in front of him.

I bet no one collects these, he thought.

So he swiped the bag — United, light blue, instructions helpfully written on the surface — and put it on his door. Friends started offering bags from their own travels. Thus, the collection that became the Air Sickness Bag Virtual Museum, now numbering more than 3,200 specimens, was born.

“One can tell a lot about an airline’s image from their Air Sickness Bags,” Silberberg, 61, writes on one of the two sites dedicated to his hobby. “Some barf bags are no more than a baggie with a twist tie, while other sickbags could win international design competitions. Are they art? I think so.”

He’s not the only one. Contrary to his thought four decades ago, other collectors around the world share his offbeat enthusiasm, posting their own prized possessions online, trading for new finds and even connecting in person at airline memorabilia events during pre-pandemic times.

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But the global community of “baggists,” as some call themselves, is small and not growing — in part due to an aging cohort and because fans say bags just aren’t that great anymore. Instead of the branded or whimsically designed ones from the past, many airlines are providing plain white options.

“I think it’s shrinking a bit because of a lack of new bags,” said Bruce Kelly, 79, a retired corrections worker in Anchorage who maintains Kelly’s World of Airsickness Bags online. His collection tops 7,300, which many of the world’s top enthusiasts have dropped by to see.

Kelly said he believes there were somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 baggists at one point. He’s not sure how many are active now.

Paul Mundy, a Germany-based communications specialist who works in international relations, has nearly 2,500 bags in a collection that started by necessity. (“Have you flown with the toddler?” he asked a reporter with a 2-year-old. “Try it. And you will become interested in airsickness bags, too.”) But he only grabs a new bag on the rare occasions that he flies and hasn’t updated his site, bagophily.com, for several years.

“The problem is that bag collecting is a sedentary activity,” said Mundy, 64. “You’re either sitting on a plane, which is bad for your varicose veins, or you are sitting in front of a computer thinking up stupid jokes to write about bags, and that is sedentary as well.”

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SFO Museum, part of San Francisco International Airport, has more than 600 bags from its archives available to peruse online. Graphic designer Henry Steiner donated a 368-bag collection, gathered during business trips.

In an email, museum registrar Tomohiko Aono said airsickness bags were a “by-product of the limitations of aircraft” in the earlier days of aviation, when planes had to fly at altitudes below 10,000 feet and were more likely to encounter bad weather and turbulence — all contributors to motion sickness.

Even after airlines could better avoid turbulence, Aono wrote, the bags remained on board and sometimes served as a scorecard for card games or containers to send film to get developed. Sometimes, they let an airline show a little flair.

“As for why they’re popular with collectors, the sky is the limit on possible reasons—as those reasons tend to be very personal,” wrote Megan Callan, assistant director for museum affairs, in an email. “But some might be: they’re small and relatively easy to maintain; they’re [easily] obtained as a memento of one’s journey; and they can display the evolution of both aircraft and airlines, through the use of logos, service marks, and other designs.”

Bag fans agree that one of the top collectibles was produced by the now-defunct Finnaviation, an elegant design showing the profile of a blue reindeer spewing what looks like a pile of sugar cubes. Kelly calls it “the barfing reindeer.”

“You look at it and you say, ‘Okay, I know what this is for,’ ” said Silberberg, who lives in Saco, Maine.

Cartoonish bags produced by Virgin Atlantic in the mid-2000s are also popular, featuring designs customized to certain routes the airline wanted to promote. Some include vomitous imagery.

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“Who says something functional can’t be fun? Well, you can’t get much more function than the airline sick bag, so we decided it was time to inject a little creativity into this familiar item,” the airline wrote on the back of its bags in the series. The 20 iterations were the result of an online competition called “Design for Chunks.”

Mundy’s collection includes one bag said to be from Air Force One, though he calls the plastic bag tucked into an envelope “very disappointing.” Not a presidential seal to be found.

Kelly is similarly disappointed in the small airlines in Alaska that have no designed bags.

“It’s terrible,” he said. “It could be such a prolific play for collectors, but it’s not.”

He’s hoping to take a trip to parts of Africa that he hasn’t yet visited and add to his collection that way.

For Silberberg, the favorite is a bag from the space shuttle obtained by a friend with a family connection to the space agency. The “emesis bag,” as a tag calls it, includes a drawing of a suited-up astronaut.

“This is the trophy bag!” he wrote on the website. “Can you tell that this bag has made my life worth living?”

Silberberg, who owns a company that takes people on fitness-focused backpacking trips, said his ownership of the domains airsicknessbags.com and barfbags.com leads to donations from people who want to purge their own collections. He calls donors or swappers “Patrons of Puke.”

The virtual museum has earned Silberberg a small measure of fame; he is even featured in this year’s Dull Men’s Club Calendar for July. But he’d really love to bring the museum to a bricks-and-mortar existence.

“I don’t know if it’ll ever happen, but you know, someday I would love to have a one- or two-room museum off the interstate in the middle of nowhere,” he said. “Where I just sat there all day and people in their Winnebago would show up on their way to an actual vacation and stop in.”

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