The feminist story behind the invention of the brown paper bag

Now we Know: The next time you use a paper bag with a folded square base, thank Margaret Knight

Before Margaret Knight’s invention, people carried their shopping around in what was essentially large envelopes, or in cones of paper wrapped around grocery items

Before Margaret Knight’s invention, people carried their shopping around in what was essentially large envelopes, or in cones of paper wrapped around grocery items

 

Behind the humble brown paper bag lies an unexpected case study of gender politics. The American inventor Margaret Knight left school at around the age of ten to work in a cotton mill in New England. After she witnessed a factory worker injured by a loose part of machinery, she invented a safety mechanism to prevent such accidents from happening again.

In an article by Hadley Meares on Aeon.co, titled “The invention of the paper bag was a triumph of feminism”, the writer lifts a quote from an interview with Knight from the Woman’s Journal of 1872. “As a child . . . I was called a tomboy,” remembered Knight, “but that made very little impression on me. I sighed sometimes, because I was not like the other girls; but wisely concluded that I couldn’t help it, and sought further consolation from my tools. I was always making things for my brothers; did they want anything in the line of playthings, they always said: ‘Mattie will make them for us.’”

In 1868, when she was 30 years old, Knight built a machine that could fold and glue paper into a bag with a flat and sturdy bottom, an invention that had eluded many inventors before her. Before then, people carried their shopping around in what was essentially large envelopes, or in cones of paper wrapped around grocery items. Can you imagine how ineffective that would be when carrying more than a few items? Rage!

In 1868, Knight brought her designs to a shop in Boston to be made into iron, a step necessary to apply for a patent. While her model was in this shop, another inventor (or, some say, charlatan) named Charles Annan spotted Knight’s invention. He quickly patented it to himself, essentially stealing her idea. Knight took him to court.

Reportedly, Annan’s lawyer’s main defence was that a woman, particularly an uneducated woman like Knight, simply wouldn’t have the intellectual sophistication required to fully understand machines. However, Knight had so much overwhelming documentation and eye-witness proof that the dispute was settled in her favour in 1870.

So the next time you use a paper bag with a folded square base, you can thank Margaret Knight.

Have a food question you need answered? Contact @aoifemcelwain on Twitter or by email at magazine@irishtimes.com with “Now we know” in the subject line.

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