The cars are nice. The cell phones cool. Electricity, indeed, helps us get things done. But where would we be without the foldable, flat-bottomed bag? A hundred and fifty years ago you had to bring your own bag, take stuff home in a rolled up cone of paper, or use one of the inefficient mass-produced envelopes that passed for bags—glued at the bottom in a V-shape. The flat-bottomed paper bags that were in use were made individually, by hand. And re-using one at the grocery store would not earn you back a nickel.
Margaret Knight was one of the first women to receive a patent, most notably for her invention of the flat-bottomed paper bag machine.
Yes, today's children owe their brown paper puppets, and cheap BANGs to Margaret "Mattie" Knight (1838 – 1914). But long before she turned her mind to the personal transportation of small goods, Knight was visiting the cotton mill where her brothers worked as overseers. One day she saw a shuttle break free from its spool of thread and stab a young boy, a fairly common occurrence, apparently. Knight, having had some experience cobbling together kites and sleds, decided to end the shuttle's danger and devised a device (the details of which are lost to history) to prevent such accidents. She was 12 and knew nothing, yet, of patents and lawsuits. The device was adopted by cotton mills throughout the country, but Knight did not profit from her work.
Knight later left her family in New Hampshire for a job with the Columbia Paper Bag Company in Springfield, MA. Presumably stupefied by the slowness of the manual process required to assemble flat-bottomed bags, Knight began toying with the idea of a machine that would make them. Within a month she had a sketch of one, and within half a year she had a working wooden model that would cut, fold, and glue the bags together with the turn of a crank. Though "rickety" as described by a witness later in the courts, it pumped out more than 1,000 bags.
Knight took the model to a local shop and, working closely with the machinist, put together an iron prototype. She then moved to Boston to refine the invention with two machinists. While work proceeded at the second of the shops, another machinist, Charles Anan, stopped by to examine the proceedings, with Knight's permission. When, some months later, Knight filed for her patent for the now complete flat-bottom-bag-making machine, she was surprised to find her application rejected. A patent for such a machine had already been granted to one Charles Anan.
1879 Patent Model for Margaret Knight’s paper bag machine.
Knight sued Anan with as much vigor as she applied herself to invention. With witnesses from each of the three machine shops testifying to her vision and careful instruction, coupled with several years worth of drawings and plans, Knight won hands down. Anan's only argument was that his modifications (presumably changes introduced because he could not perfectly remember the details of the model) made his a different machine. Subsequently, the use of her bags spread throughout the world. Queen Victoria decorated her in 1871.
After making the machine, she formed the Easter Paper Bag Company. But before long she had turned her mind to other manufacturing problems. She created a machine for cutting the soles of shoes, a sewing machine reel, a pronged spit, a paper-feeding machine, an "automatic tool for boring concave or cylindrical surfaces," a numbering mechanism, a skirt protector, and a sleeve-valve engine, among many other inventions.
Knight, "at the age of seventy, is working twenty hours a day on her 89th invention," reported the New York Times on October, 19, 1913. The next year she would be dead, leaving behind an estate valued at $275.05.
Myth—and children's books—claim that few took her inventions seriously because of her gender, and that Anan argued in court that Knight couldn't have invented the flat-bottomed paper bag machine because she was a woman. The recorded facts show otherwise, but, late in life, Knight did bemoan: "I'm only sorry I couldn't have had as good a chance as a boy, and have been put to my trade regularly."
Michael Abrams is an independent writer.
I'm only sorry I couldn't have had as good a chance as a boy, and have been put to my trade regularly.
Margret "Mattie" Knight