The Fascinating History of the Paper Grocery Bag.

Did you know that the inventor of the iconic brown grocery bag was a woman?  Thankfully, Margaret Knight, inventor of the flat-bottomed paper grocery bag, was a fighter, or none of us would have come to know the real story behind the invention of the now ubiquitous brown paper bag.

Margaret Knight  Image credit: Public Domain

Margaret Knight
Image credit: Public Domain

Margaret Knight was born February 14, 1838 in York, Maine and displayed a capacity for building and inventing from a young age.  As a child, the boys in her neighborhood sought her out for her skill in building sleds and kites.  At the age of twelve, Margaret went to work in a cotton mill to help provide for her family.  Factories at that time could be dangerous places to work, and Margaret witnessed an accident where a worker was injured from a steel-tipped shuttle flying off of a cotton loom.  Before her thirteenth birthday, Margaret had invented a shuttle restraint system to protect workers from errant shuttles.  Though she was never compensated for her invention, it was widely adopted by the cotton industry. 

Margaret went on to become capable in a wide variety of technical trades.  Eventually, she joined the Colombia Bag Factory in Springfield Massachusetts. Her job was to fold paper bags by hand, which was inefficient and prone to irregularities in the finished product.  With her signature curiosity and interest in improvement, Margaret began to work on designs for a machine that would automate the manufacturing of paper bags as well as modify them, so that they were flat on the bottom. 

Within six months Margaret had created a wooden prototype.  Her wooden model was a remarkable improvement on folding bags by hand, but it was not terribly sturdy.  To address this, Margaret sought out a machinist to create her design in iron.  Though accounts seem to vary, somewhere along the way Charles Anon became familiar with her design.  After further refinements to her design, Margaret filed for a patent only to be surprised that a patent had already been awarded to Charles Anon.

Her story could have ended here.  It was not typical for a woman to file for a patent in 1800’s.  Even today, less than 10% of “primary inventor” patent awardees are female.  On top of that, attorney fees were expensive, and Margaret’s income was modest.  The odds were certainly stacked against her, and Margaret could have very well given up.  Instead, she hired an expensive attorney and went to battle to rightfully claim this marvelous invention as her own.

Records of the case show that Margaret provided many drawings and could explain each step along the way as she brought her invention to life.  Mr. Anon, on the other hand, largely based his case on the argument that it wasn’t possible that a woman could have come up with the design.  The court sided in Margaret’s favor, and she was awarded a patent for her machine in 1871. 

A drawing of Margaret Knight’s bag machine.
Image credit: United States Patent and Trademark Office, Public Domain

Margaret’s bag was a substantial improvement upon the status quo of the day where shoppers brought their own containers or used paper cones.  Though there were improvements to her design over the years, including the invention of Charles Stilwell whose design added pleats to the sides that made folding and stacking easier, Margaret’s bag is remarkably similar to the brown paper grocery bag still in widespread use today.

Margaret continued a long, successful career as an inventor though she never become wealthy from her work.  She did eventually build a name for herself as the public became more aware of the contributions of female inventors.  She was featured in The New York Times in an article that explored a revolutionary idea for the time in the article, “Women as Inventors.”  Margaret is called out by name,

“The time has come now, however, when men must look to their laurels, for the modern field is full of women inventors.  The oldest of them and the one having most to her credit, is Miss Margaret E. Knight, who at the age of seventy is working twenty hours a day on her eighty-ninth invention.” The New York Times, October 19, 1913.

Our own founder Albert Ross (1914-2002) shared some of the same qualities as Margaret Knight.  He loved machines, and he was always trying to improve them.  He also had several of his designs patented, and you could often find him tinkering with new designs in his workshop.  His wife, Noreen Ross (1923 -1991), was also a pioneer in her own right.  She ran our office from our very earliest days, though in 1951 very few women were in the workforce.  Albert and Noreen are no longer with us, yet we still strive at Ross & Wallace to make them proud by valuing improvement, however small, in our effort to manufacture the highest quality products with the best possible service. 

Smithsonian Institute
The New York Times
The American Society of Mechanical Engineers
Encyclopedia Britannica
United States Patent and Trademark Office
The Museum of Modern Art