Meet the female inventor behind mass-market paper bags
It’s natural to think about what goes into producing the food in your daily sack lunch. But have you ever stopped to consider the manufacturing techniques behind the sack itself? We encounter the flat-bottomed brown paper bags constantly. We see them in the lunch context and at grocery stores. We see them in gift shops. They are as unassuming as they are ubiquitous. But the story underlying them deserves recognition.
At the center of it is a young woman. She was born in Maine 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 rudimentary schooling. But the 12-year-old Knight joined the ranks of a riverside cotton mill in Manchester. She did this to support her widowed mother. She worked in an unregulated, dangerous factory setting. She worked for small wages from before dawn until after dusk.
Steel-tipped flying shuttles were one of the leading causes of grievous 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 with the slightest employee error.
The mechanically minded Knight set out to fix this. She devised an original shuttle restraint system that would soon sweep the cotton industry. She did so before her thirteenth birthday. At the time, she had no notion of patenting her idea. But as the years went by she generated more and more such concepts. Knight 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 to keep 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 appreciable 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 the inefficient and 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 and secure a patent on her creation. This was considered a bold move for a woman in the 19th century. This was a time when a vanishingly small percentage of patents were held by women.
In contemporary America, women have full property rights and 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.
Not only did Knight file for a patent, she rigorously defended her ownership of the bag machine idea. This came in a legal battle 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 that no woman could be capable of designing such a machine. So 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 after the dispute was resolved.
Today, 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, patented in its own right in 1879.
Over her prolific intellectual career, Knight would successfully file for more than 20 patents in total. These run the technological gamut from combustion engines to skirt protectors. Though she managed to live more comfortably in middle and old age than in childhood, Knight was never rich by any means. She remained unmarried and without children. She 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, one year before her death. The New York Times, in what was then a refreshingly progressive move, ran a lengthy feature on “Women Who Are Inventors.” Knight was the headliner.
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 manufactured using updated versions of Knight’s “industrial origami” machine (Petroski’s term) and remind us just how much one resolute woman was able to achieve. Even when the cards were stacked against her. “She’s a terrific hero,” says Warner, “and a role model.”