The 19th century woman who simplified our shopping by inventing the paper grocery bag
Margaret Knight held numerous patents as an entrepreneur in several fields, including the humble paper bag
If you’ve ever carried your groceries home in a paper bag, you can thank Margaret E. Knight. It’s a name you’ve almost certainly never heard of, paired with an invention that seems too obvious to notice. But the brown paper bag is one of many useful modern conveniences that, in retrospect, weren’t self-evident before it was designed. The sweat and sacrifice its creator endured to bring this seemingly simple object into our lives is worth our admiration. At a time when it was assumed that women weren’t smart enough to invent things, Margaret Knight showed a fiery determination to realize her ingenuity and not let others take credit for her original work.
Curiosity and toolbox
His father died shortly after his birth in 1838, leaving his family in poverty. But he left something behind – an old toolbox – and from this container the natural aptitude of the young “Mattie” blossomed. She used it to build toys for her brothers and neighborhood children, later recalling, “I was famous for my kites, and my sleds were the envy and admiration of all the boys in the city. In a notebook entitled “My inventions”, she got into the habit of making drawings of her ideas.
At the age of 12, she left school to work in a textile factory, enduring grueling hours in appalling conditions. One day, a thread broke on a nearby machine, causing a steel-tipped shuttle (the part of the loom used to weave the threads) to break. A girl who lived next door to Mattie was hit in the head and seriously injured, an all too common occurrence in cotton mills at the time.
Mattie sketched a solution to the problem in her notebook, which involved adding a metal shield to the box plate that would prevent a shuttle from flying away. She showed the design to a worker at a local machine shop, who passed on the idea company-wide. Soon this “shuttle restraint” became a standard incorporation in looms across the country. Mattie, however, received no compensation for her life-saving invention, as she was too young to record one.
She continued to work in the factory until she was 18, then tried her hand at various crafts over the next 10 years – daguerreotype, photography, printmaking, upholstery and home repair, among others. But it was after the Civil War that she landed the job that changed her life: a machinist at the Columbia Paper Bag Company in Springfield, Massachusetts. While there, she received two-thirds of the salary of male employees who performed the same work; women were thought not only to be less proficient than men with machinery, but also to wear “objectionable” clothing which took up too much space and presented a hazard to the workplace (according to one of the superintendents) .
During her employment with the company, she studied the machines and noted shortcomings in their efficiency, as well as problems with the paper bag then in use, which was shaped like an envelope and could neither stand or support much weight without tearing. Over the next two years, working in the basement of her dwelling, she sketched out improvements and made basic models for her designs.
When the time came to make a wooden prototype, Knight opened his father’s old toolbox. She had kept it with her all these years, taking it with her wherever she went, keeping his memory alive. Using only the rusting objects from this cherished and decaying heirloom, she built a device that could successfully cut, fold and glue paper to make the flat-bottomed brown bags we know so well today. It was a machine that could do the work of thirty factory workers in a fraction of the time. These new bags could stand up and hold more weight than those currently produced, potentially revolutionizing the industry – if only Knight could acquire the rights to sell the machine.
Intending to get a patent, she went to a machine shop in Boston and gave instructions to have an iron model built from her wooden prototype. After that, she headed to the patent office, only to find that someone else had just submitted a design for the same invention a few days before. Knight was puzzled, then outraged. She learned that a man named Charles F. Annan had made frequent trips to the machine shop, studied Knight’s prototype under false pretences, and passed it off as his own.
She sued Annan, using her last savings to hire a lawyer. During a trial that lasted more than two weeks, she spent one hundred dollars a day (in 1870 currency) as witnesses were brought in to testify to Knight’s priority of invention. The defense attempted to build a case against her on the basis of female inferiority, with Annan stating under oath that “Miss Knight could not understand the mechanical intricacies of the machine”. To counter these accusations, Knight spoke out, telling the court, “From my earliest memory, I have been connected in one way or another with machines.” She described her manufacturing employment history before laying out her plans, early design models and diary entries detailing the progress of her work over a two-year period.
Faced with evidence that a woman had indeed made it up, the defense attorney attempted to swing the case in Annan’s favor by arguing that too much time had elapsed between Knight’s conception of the machine and its patent application. The process should have taken months, not years. Patent Office examiners, however, considered obstacles related to Knight’s status and gender, adding that she had exercised “due diligence” of “most conspicuous character” in completing her project. . The judge ruled in his favour, then closed the case with the remark: “Mr. Annan will forever be dishonored in history.
After the trial, Knight gained international attention. She turned down an offer of $50,000 to buy the patent from him and partnered with a backer to open the Eastern Paper Bag Company. The business deal included an upfront payment, as well as royalties on each bag made and shares in the company.
Later inventions and legacy
Over the next four decades, Knight expanded into the footwear, rubber, and automotive industries. She was granted patents for (among other things) a machine that cut shoe soles, “non-slip” tires, an internal combustion engine and a rotary motor dubbed the “Knight Silent Motor”. Still other inventions included a numbering machine, a machine that made window sashes, and a “dress and skirt shield”. At the time of her death in 1914, she held 22 patents in her name, and she is credited with an additional 65 inventions under patents held by her investors and employers. After her death at the age of 76, a local obituary called her the “Edison woman”.
In an 1872 interview with “Woman’s Journal”, Knight was asked how a woman with no formal education could have invented her paper bag machine. In response, she cited her innate disposition:
I was just following nature. As a child, I never cared about the things that girls usually do; dolls have never had charms for me. … The only things I wanted were a penknife, a gimlet, and pieces of wood. My friends were horrified.
She concluded by saying, “I’m not surprised at what I did; I only regret not having been as lucky as a boy. At a time when the role of a woman was not associated with entrepreneurship and the small number of other female inventors mainly filed patents related to the domestic sphere (even hiding their gender on patent documents) , Knight was helping to manufacture the industry under his own name. Her success story makes her one of the first women to embody the American dream of achieving material prosperity through creativity and diligence.
Parents who want to teach this inventor to their children have several resources at their disposal. Two excellent children’s books have been written on the subject: “In the Bag! : Margaret Knight Wraps it Up” and “Marvelous Mattie: How Margaret E. Knight Became an Inventor”. The second of these illustrated biographies, by Caldecott Medal winner Emily Arnold McCully, tells Knight’s story through watercolors and includes panels of da Vinci-esque drawings similar to those sketched in his famous notebook.
The design of paper bags has undergone some improvements since Knight patented his machine. Most notably, today’s versions have pleated sides which make the folding more compact. In essence, however, they remain the same, and Knight would still be able to recognize his invention which, more than 150 years after its patent, remains widely used everywhere. So the next time you go shopping, think of inventor Margaret Knight.
This article originally appeared in American Essence magazine.