Adventures in Feministory: Margaret Knight, Queen of Paper Bags


Not to give you an excuse to expand your carbon footprint or anything, but did you know that every time you forget your cloth bags at the grocery store you're probably making use of a woman-invented product? That's right; the flat-bottomed paper bag was invented by none other than feministorical innovator Margaret E. Knight, seen here in sketch-drawing form (unless this is how people actually looked in the 19th century):


Image courtesy of the children's book Marvelous Mattie: How Margaret E. Knight Became An Inventor

Though her life began as a child laborer in a cotton mill factory, Margaret Knight (or Mattie) made a name for herself through engineering ingenuity. Born in 1838 in the U.S. state of Maine, Knight grew up crafting sleds and kites for her siblings. Ever the innovator, she even came up with an idea for safer textile machinery at the young age of 12. (Really puts that sixth grade spelling bee trophy into perspective, doesn't it?)

In 1868 while working at a bag factory in Springfield, Massachusetts, Knight invented the device that gave her the title "Queen of Paper Bags," a machine that folded and glued paper bags into a flat-bottomed shape (prior to her invention paper bags were glued like envelopes). Of course, this being the 19th century, the men at the factory initially refused to acknowledge the craftiness of Knight's invention because they didn't think a woman could know anything about machines, and one of them even tried to steal her idea and patent it himself. Knight sued him, won, and started her own paper bag company in 1870 that used her folding machines. The rest, as they say, is conveniently flat-bottomed history.

Margaret Knight went on to be awarded 26 other U.S. patents, for items as diverse as a new type of window sash and something called a "dress and skirt shield." She is also the subject of the delightful-looking, Caldecott-winning book Marvelous Mattie: How Margaret E. Knight Became An Inventor by Emily Arnold McCully. Pick up a copy for the budding inventor in your life, and don't forget to ask for a paper bag!

by Kelsey Wallace
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