January 25, 2011
At some point in our restaurant dining experiences, we meet our Waterloo: that sauce-soaked rack of ribs, a plate of jumbo-sized sweet-n-sour shrimp, or that 72-ounce steak dinner you tried to eat in under an hour so the house would cover the tab. Unable to finish what’s on the plate, you run the white napkin up the flagpole (or fork, or chopstick—whatever might be handy) and admit defeat. It’s time to ask for a doggie bag. But as you’re waiting for your waiter to come back with a box, do you ever stop to wonder how this commonplace dining practice started off?
Leave it to the ancient Romans to get a jump start on our modern conveniences. Dinner guests were accustomed to bringing napkins to the dinner table because between courses it was only natural to want to clean one’s mouth and hands lest one should offend fellow diners. Around the 6th century BC, they started using napkins to package foodstuffs to take home.
The modern doggie bag came about in the 1940s. With the United States engaged in World War II, food shortages were a fact of daily life on the home front—and for the sake of economy, pet owners were encouraged to feed table scraps to their pets. But thousands of Americans also dined out at restaurants where such frugal practices went by the wayside because eateries didn’t offer to wrap up food as a standard convenience. In 1943, San Fransisco Francisco (whoops!) cafés, in an initiative to prevent animal cruelty, offered patrons Pet Pakits, cartons that patrons could readily request to carry home leftovers to Fido. Around the same time, Hotels in Seattle, Washington provided diners with wax paper bags bearing the label “Bones for Bowser.” Eateries across the nation followed suit and started similar practices.
However, people began requesting doggie bags to take home food for themselves, much to the chagrin of etiquette columnists who were quick to wag their fingers at the practice. “I do not approve of taking leftover food such as pieces of meat home from restaurants,” Emily Post’s newspaper column sniped in 1968. “Restaurants provide ‘doggy bags’ for bones to be taken to pets, and generally the bags should be restricted to that use.” These attitudes have since softened—especially given increasing restaurant portion sizes—and most modern diners don’t feel embarrassed when asking their waiter to wrap up a remaining entrée for human consumption.
And in some restaurants, the packaging of leftovers has evolved into something of a minor art form. Waiters cocoon your leftovers in tin foil which they then deftly shape into animals likes swans or seahorses. You almost hate to eat the food for ruining the fancy takeaway packaging. And in some locations, the doggie bag has evolved to where it no longer holds solid food, but also that fancy bottle of wine you bought as a perfect accompaniment to dinner but couldn’t quite finish.
However, if you do plan on taking table scraps home and actually feeding them to your pet, please read the ASPCA’s hit list of foods your furry friend should avoid. Also, be aware that the doggie bag is more of an American custom. If you’re traveling abroad, be sure to bone up on the dining habits of wherever it is you’re visiting. The last thing you want is to be in a strange land and let people think your table manners are for the dogs.
Sign up for our free email newsletter and receive the best stories from Smithsonian.com each week.