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To each, his own bag

A Hull man maintains an unusual collection

Email|Print| Text size + By Emily Sweeney
Globe Staff / January 3, 2008

HULL - Steven J. Silberberg is a Hull resident with an interesting hobby: He collects air-sickness bags.

Silberberg, 46, is the self-described curator of The Air Sickness Bag Virtual Museum, a website that features 2,000 images of barf bags from his personal collection. Many were created specifically for travelers on airlines, trains, buses, and boats. He has a Northwest Orient Airlines bag from 1959 and an American Airlines bag that doubled as an envelope to protect photographic film. Others were produced as promotional items for horror movies, video games, and rock bands. Some were even made for political campaigns, such as the colorful bag from the 1988 Republican National Convention that takes aim at Michael S. Dukakis and states: "The Duke Makes Us Puke."

Some people don't really get his quirky hobby.

"I've found it's a really good litmus test that shows if I will get along with somebody," Silberberg said.

He keeps his air-sickness bags in plastic sheets and stores them in three-ring binders at his home on Nantasket Road. The last time he counted, he had 2,037 bags, He has estimated that he possesses the 10th-largest collection in the world, not bad for someone who has never traveled outside of North America. (A Netherlands man named Niek K. Vermeulen holds the Guinness World Record, with 5,180 bags.)

Silberberg has been collecting the bags - also known as motion-sickness bags, or happy sacks - since he was in college. He got his first bag on a United Airlines flight in 1981. He noticed the small, plastic-lined bag tucked into the seat in front of him. He took it home as a souvenir, and that marked the beginning of a new hobby. Before long, his friends started giving him air-sickness bags from their flights as gifts. After graduating in 1984 from MIT with degrees in computer science and electrical engineering, he continued to collect them.

His bag-collecting hit a zenith during the late 1990s, when he started finding other sickness bag enthusiasts on the Internet. They started trading bags like baseball cards. He learned that in the world of air-sickness-bag collecting, there are those who collect only bags manufactured specifically for air travel, while others are more strict, collecting only from flights they've been on themselves.

Silberberg prefers the bags not actually made for motion sickness, but for promotions, such as those given away at trade shows and conventions to promote video games and movies.

"I love the political ones," he said. He has a bag with a Superman logo made to promote the 2002 Xbox game, "Superman: The Man of Steel," emblazoned with the slogan, "Let's Just Say the Flying Is Very Realistic."

The Eastern Financial Florida Credit Union tried to lure potential customers with a white sickness bag with blue letters that spelled out: "Is Your Bank Making You Sick?" and offered rebates for opening a checking account or taking out a mortgage, with the following instructions: "Bring unused bags to one of our conveniently located branches to get $425 with these valuable coupons."

"You wouldn't think that would be a way to sell you a bank, but it is," Silberberg said with a laugh.

One bag states: "Your Nausea Bag for the 1972 Republican Convention." A bag produced by a British tabloid newspaper features a full-color head shot of former Prime Minister Tony Blair. Then there's the "Hillary Clinton Barf Bag," which states: "Socialized medicine makes me sick!" Silberberg also has a pinstriped Newt Gingrich bag from 1996.

The traditional air-sickness bag - the kind you find on airplanes - is becoming a thing of the past. People apparently just don't throw up on planes as much as they used to, and many airlines have stopped branding their bags, carrying cheaper, generic plain white ones instead. In recent years, Virgin Atlantic bucked that trend, sponsoring an air-sickness-bag art contest, and putting the winning designs on its in-flight bags. In 2005, Virgin carried bags featuring images from "Star Wars" to promote the new "Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith" video game.

Silberberg's collection is far from complete. There are still dozens of bags he'd love to have. Vintage bags made prior to 1970 are hard to come by, he said, and he'd love to find a bag from the 2003 Gray Davis and Arnold Schwarzenegger gubernatorial campaign, or the bag that was made to promote the Beastie Boys "License to Ill" album. Through Internet searches, he finds out that these bags once existed, though it can be difficult finding anyone who has one.

These days he's pretty busy running his company, Fatpacking, through which he leads weight-loss, backpacking vacations in the wilderness.

Silberberg set up a Google Alert, so he receives an e-mail every time the term "air-sickness bag" pops up in a Google search. That way he can stay on top of the latest bags. He also communicates with dozens of hard-core collectors via e-mail.

He dreams of one day opening a small roadside museum in an empty storefront in Hull. "I can see it now," he said. "A guy vacationing with his family, saying, 'Hey, kids, let's go visit the barf bag museum!' "

Emily Sweeney can be reached at esweeney@globe.com.

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