It’s very likely that some time in your life, you’ve been asked: “Paper or Plastic?”
Ever stop to think where these bags came from? Well, for this installment of “Learning from InvENtors,” we’re highlighting an inventor known as “the lady Edison,” Margaret Knight, who, among other things, invented the paper grocery bag!
Dubbed “the most famous 19th century woman inventor,” Margaret Knight was born in York, Maine, in 1838. As a child she loved devising different types of toys for herself and her siblings to play with.
Margaret’s father, James Knight, passed when Margaret was a little girl. She went to school until she was 12 and worked in a cotton mill through 1856 to help her family. One day at work, a snagged thread caused a shuttle to fly off its moorings along the processing line, and a worker was injured. Based on what Knight observed, she suggested and went on to create a way to create a covered shuttle so that this kind of accident couldn’t happen again. At the time she didn’t know about patents so though companies went on to use her idea, she never profited from that particular one.
Knight moved to Springfield, Mass., and took a job at the Columbia Paper Bag Company following the Civil War in 1868. At the time, paper bags were flat with envelope-like openings. Knight thought a square bottomed bag would be more useful but she realized there would need to be an automated way to fold the paper and glue the bottoms. She began experimenting with how the bag-making machine the factory currently used could be altered to accomplish this task. She studied the machines at the factory during the day and made drawings and models at night in the boarding house where she lived. Margaret Knight’s bag machine was patented July 11, 1871, as patent #116,842.
Knight built a wooden model of the device, but needed a working iron model to apply for a patent. Charles Annan, who was in the machine shop where Knight’s iron model was being built, stole her design and patented the device. In response, Knight filed a successful patent interference lawsuit and was award the patent in 1871.
In 1870, she and a business partner decided to set up a company to make the bags herself. The workers were difficult about following her instructions as they felt a woman couldn’t possibly know how a machine should work. However Knight prevailed and the Eastern Paper Bag Company started production.
This time, Knight earned royalties on her patent.
The invention greatly impacted the paper industry, as satchel-bottom bags became a choice material for carrying and transporting goods. The large New York department stores of Macy’s and Lord & Taylor’s realized how they could utilize the flat-bottom bags to accommodate customer needs without having to take time to wrap a parcel with paper and twine. It was reported in Anne. L. MacDonald’s book, Feminine Ingenuity, that Knight’s paper bag machine replaced the work of 30 people and “attracted extraordinary attention in Europe and America.”
Today, in excess of 7,000 machines throughout the world produce flat-bottom paper bags, now known as “stand-on-shelf” or “self-opening sacks” (S.O.S). Major suppliers of these machines are H.G. Weber & Co., headquartered in Kiel, Wis., two firms in Germany, and one each in France and Japan.
Paper bag machines today are producing 200 to 650 sacks per minute. End uses of S.O.S. bags include grocery and department stores, fast food restaurants, and bakeries. S.O.S. bags are also found in lunch rooms; on store shelves for consumer products, coffee, pet food, and charcoal; and at home for composting and yard waste.
Knight’s other inventions included a numbering machine, window frame and sash, patented in 1894, and several devices relating to rotary engines, patented between 1902 and 1915.
Knight’s original bag-making machine is in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C..
Knight went on to invent many other useful products, almost all of which had to do with manufacturing. One was a machine for boring holes, another was for a numbering machine, and yet another pertained to making windows and sashes.
In the mid-1890s, she dedicated herself to creating a better machine for making shoes. And though she was in her sixties when automobiles were coming into their own, she was fascinated by them and patented a series of improvements to the rotary engine.
Before passing away in 1914, Knight acquired as many as 26 patents in diverse industries.
Knight was inducted in the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2006.
Margaret Knight is an inspiration for all inventors, not just us gals! When presented with someone stealing her idea, she could have easily gave up the fight, but she prevailed in filing one of the first patent lawsuits, and WON! Then, when faced with opposition of being a “woman who didn’t know how to run a business,” she prevailed again and started the Eastern Paper Bag Company.
Don’t let yourself ever be satisfied, and never give up.
Have you ever thought, “wouldn’t it be cool if…”? We exist to get product ideas out of your head and onto retail shelves, all at no risk to you.