Meet the female inventor behind mass-market paper bags
It’s natural to think about what goes into making the food in your daily sack lunch. But have you ever stopped to think about how the bag itself? We see the flat-bottomed brown paper bags all the time. We see them in the lunch context. We see them at grocery stores. We see them in gift shops. They are as unassuming as they are iconic. But the story underlying them deserves to be known.
At the center of it is a young woman. She was born in Maine. She was born on the heels of the Industrial Revolution. And she was raised in New Hampshire. Her name is Margaret Knight.
From her earliest years, Knight was a tireless tinkerer. In a scholarly article titled “The Evolution of the Grocery Bag,” engineering historian Henry Petroski mentions a few of her childhood projects. These tended to demand a certain facility for woodwork. She was “famous for her kites,” Petroski writes. He says “her sleds were the envy of the town’s boys.”
She only had some schooling. But the 12-year-old Knight joined the ranks of a riverside cotton mill. It was in Manchester. She did this to support her widowed mother. She worked in a factory setting. It was unregulated. It was dangerous. She worked for small wages. She worked from before dawn until after dusk.
Steel-tipped flying shuttles were one of the leading causes of bad injury at the mill. This she soon observed. They were manipulated by workers to unite the perpendicular weft and warp threads in their weaves. There was a propensity for them to come free of their looms. They would shoot off at high velocity. This would happen with the slightest employee error.
The mechanically minded Knight set out to fix this. She devised an original shuttle restraint system. It would soon sweep the cotton industry. She did so before her thirteenth birthday. At the time, she had no notion of patenting her idea. The years went by. She made more and more such concepts. She came to see the moneymaking potential in her creativity.
Knight departed the brutal mill in her late teens. That's according to Petroski. She cycled through a number of technical jobs. These kept her pockets and her mind well-fed. In time, she became adept in a wide range of trades. She became equally comfortable with daguerreotypes as she was with upholstery. What cemented her place in the history books was her tenure at the Columbia Paper Bag company. It was based in Springfield, Massachusetts.
At the bag company, Knight saw opportunities for improvement. This was true of most places where she spent a lot of time. Instead of folding every paper bag by hand, Knight wondered if she might instead be able to make them cleanly and rapidly via an automated mechanism. Folding by hand was inefficient. It was an error-prone task she was charged with.
She built a working model of her elegant paper-folding apparatus. But by this time, she wanted to go the extra step. She wanted to secure a patent on her creation. This was considered a bold move for a woman in the 19th century. This was a time when only a small percentage of patents were held by women.
In contemporary America, women have full property rights. They hold many more positions of power in government than in the 1800s. But fewer than 10 percent of “primary inventor” patent awardees are female. This is the result of longstanding discouraging norms.
Knight filed for a patent. She rigorously defended her ownership of the bag machine idea. This came in a legal battle. It was with a fraud who had copied her. A man named Charles Annan decided he would try to pull the rug out from under her. He claimed the creation as his own. This came after he had gotten a glimpse of Knight’s machine in its development phase.
This turned out to be extremely ill-advised. Knight spent a large chunk of her hard-earned money on quality legal counsel. And she handed Annan a humiliating courtroom defeat. He made a bigoted argument. He said that no woman could be capable of designing such a machine. Knight presented her detailed hand-drawn blueprints. Annan had no such evidence to offer himself. He was quickly found to be a moneygrubbing charlatan. Knight received her rightful patent in 1871. This came after the dispute was resolved.
A scaled-down but fully functional patent model of Knight’s groundbreaking machine is housed at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. It is actually an update on her original design. It was patented in its own right in 1879.
She had a prolific intellectual career. Knight successfully filed for more than 20 patents in total. These run the technological gamut from combustion engines to skirt protectors. She managed to live more comfortably in middle and old age than in childhood. But Knight was never rich by any means. She remained unmarried. She had no children. Knight died alone with her achievements and a mere $300 to her name.
The implications of Knight’s eventful life were addressed in widely read ink as early as 1913. This was one year before her death. The New York Times ran a lengthy feature on “Women Who Are Inventors.” Knight was the headliner. This was a refreshingly progressive move.
No doubt many female inventors of the early 1900s—and later—were spurred on by Knight’s courageous example. Warner sees in the story of the talented and tenacious Knight an enduring source of inspiration for anyone with original ideas looking to better the world around them. “Someone tried to steal her design, and she sued him and won,” Warner stresses, “and she made money out of her invention too. She was a tough lady!”
Humble paper bags are still made using updated versions of Knight’s “industrial origami” machine (Petroski’s term). They remind us just how much one woman was able to achieve. Even when the cards were stacked against her. “She’s a terrific hero,” says Warner, “and a role model.”