Meet the Woman Who Invented the Mass-Produced Brown Paper Bag

Margaret Knight, a self-taught engineer, was in some ways a patent pioneer.

paper bag
(Getty Images)
By Rebecca Gibian / March 31, 2019 5:00 am

Introducing Margaret Knight, the woman behind the mass production of flat-bottomed brown paper bags that people use to carry their lunch, pack their groceries, or carry supplies. Knight was born in Maine on the heels of the Industrial Revolution and raised in New Hampshire. Even as a child, she was always tinkering, writes Smithsonian Magazine. According to historian Henry Petroski, Knight was “famous for her kites,” and “her sleds were the envy of the town’s boys.”

She started at a cotton mill when she was only 12-years-old. By 13, she had developed a shuttle restraint system that swept across the cotton industry. From there, she only came up with more ideas and concepts, and finally ended up at the Columbia Paper Bag company in Springfield, Massachusetts. This is where Knight came up with the idea of an automated mechanism that would fold paper bags quickly and without error. At the time, flat-bottomed bags were seen as artisanal items, but her idea changed all that.

“After a while,” Petroski writes, according to Smithsonian, “she began to experiment with a machine that could feed, cut, and fold the paper automatically and, most important, form the squared bottom of the bag.”

At the time, few women held intellectual property, but Knight knew she wanted to patent it. She even went on to defend her ownership of the bag machine idea in a legal battle with a copycat. She rightfully received her patent in 1871, and we still use flat-bottomed paper bags to this day.

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