It’s in the Bag – Shopping bags in the GDR

While recently observing the orgy of consumerism that are the Boxing Day (December 26th) sales here in Canada, I got to thinking and realized that, in a way, everyday was Boxing Day in the GDR. Admittedly, no 72-inch flat screen televisions were involved, but think about it: this was a place where consumers constantly had to line up for access to scarce goods. And if you were shopping for food staples, there were some amazing bargains to be had thanks to some very rigid price controls. (For everything else, however, supply was always an issue so it was kind of like the Boxing Day flyer which reads “Only four per store”. Maybe the GDR state motto should have been “Quantities are Limited”. Indeed, maybe the socialist planned economy inadvertently pioneered the “loss leader concept”: “Come for dirt cheap potatoes, then stay for the endlessly bright Communist future!”)

“Immer Bereit”– Always Ready
At any rate, the shortages endemic to the GDR economy meant lining up was a ubiquitous part of the East German consumer experience. If you encountered a line, you got in it and stayed in it regardless of what it was for. In East Germany access to goods, any goods, was power and allowed one to grease the wheels in the all-important barter economy. So you got in line and bought the windshield wipers, even if you didn’t have a car. Or Christmas cake when you hated marzipan.

To facilitate such spontaneous shopping, East Germans often carried a shopping bag with them at all times. In the event that they hadn’t come prepared, some shops did offer customers shopping bags for convenience. Considering the materials used to make these bags gives some insight into the East German economy.

Dederon
To be ready when a shopping opportunity offered itself, most GDR residents carried a shopping bag with them at all times. For many, this bag was made from Dederon, a light, durable, water-resistant material (often in a some sort of arresting pattern or colour scheme) which was the GDR’s answer to nylon. Interestingly (well, for me at least), these Dederon bags are one of the few remaining traces of everyday life in the GDR which can still be encountered today. LIke the once ubiquitous Trabant automobiles, their presence has diminished in recent years, but if you keep an eye out, they’re there. Often in the hands of a pensioner in a beige anorak.

As a result of their persistence in the culture, the Dederon bag has come to function as a sort of cultural signifier for the GDR in post-unification Germany and no exhibit of “everyday life in the GDR” (and there have been many) can fail to include numerous examples. A show I attended in Leipzig in 1999 strung dozens of these from a cable and they served as a visual leitmotif for the exhibit.

Dederon was engineered as part of a 1958 campaign by the Socialist Unity Party (SED) to harness the power of chemistry in the service of the East’s economy and make the country independent of Western imports. Entitled “Chemistry Brings Bread, Prosperity and Beauty”, the seven-year campaign prioritized the development of the chemical industry (including the country’s only oil refinery, PVC factory and synthetic fibre mill) and encouraged the development of numerous materials which the GDR was then bringing in from the Western world. Dederon was created as a low-cost, versatile alternative to nylons from the West. The name Dederon reflects the national pride at play within the campaign as it sees the suffix -on  added to DeDeR, the German acronym for the GDR.

Paper

It was common to find paper bags, not plastic, in most retail settings and its use had several advantages. First, the relatively coarse paper used for such bags could be easily produced domestically. Second, paper was recyclable, a consideration of some importance to the resource poor-GDR. Indeed, the country was a leader in glass and paper recycling and dedicated much effort to diverting these materials from the waste stream. Finally, the bags were practical and, in some cases as the examples from my collection show, fun.

Plastic

Having to import all its oil, GDR planners were careful in how this was used and dedicated only a small part of these reserves to the relative luxury of the polyethylene plastic bag. Production was centred at the country’s only petrochemical refinery in the Socialist City (read: planned city) of Schwedt, a town to the north-east of Berlin on the Polish border. Interestingly, more than half the shopping bags used in the U.S. in the 1980s were produced in the GDR as a means of generating hard currency.

Not surprisingly, the limited number of plastic bags earmarked for use inside East Germany went to tourist locations (see the example in my collection of Berlin TV Tower) bag or organizations which enjoyed political priority (National People’s Army Book and  Magazine Distribution).

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