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Margaret Knight and Paper bags

May 29, 2001

A public radio commentary

The next time you're at the grocery store and they say "paper or plastic?" I want you to choose paper, and when you get home examine the bottom of the bag. That square, flat bottom - called a satchel bottom - is the work of Margaret Knight.

Over a hundred years ago she invented a machine to make these flat bottom bags, and it revolutionized retail sales in American. The large New York department stores, Macy's and Lord & Taylor's, realized they could use Knight's cheap, but sturdy, flat-bottomed bags to allow a clerk to quickly package a purchase and move on to the next customer, instead of taking the time to wrap a parcel with paper and twine.

Knight's first invention was at age twelve. She visited a cotton mill, to see her brothers who worked there, and saw an accident: A spindle flew loose and wounded a girl. This spurred Knight to figure out a way to make the mills automatically stop, thus preventing further accidents. After this invention Margaret Knight doesn't appear in any public record until her first patents twenty years later, when she was thirty-two.

Two years after the Civil War she went to work for a paper bag manufacturer. While there she invented an ingenious device for taking a roll of paper and converting it into flat-bottom bags.

The machine is an incredibly complex and clever thing: It cuts a strip of paper from the roll, glues it into a tube, cuts the ends and folds them neatly and quickly into a flat bottom. Margaret Knight built a wooden prototype of her machine and made thousands of trial bags. As her prototype churned away, a man visited the factory, studied the machine, and before she could patent it, stole the idea.

Knight sued and then spent the incredible sum, at the time, of $100 a day plus expenses for sixteen days of deposition of herself and key witnesses. Due to her careful notes, diary entries, samples and expertise the court ruled in her favor.

After the suit Margaret Knight continued inventing - working on machines for making shoes, and rotary engines. My the end of here life she'd patented over 22 inventions, and even got a decoration from Queen Victoria in 1871 for her paper bag machine.

Still she felt she could have done more. A year or two before she died, she told an interviewer: "I'm not surprised by what I've done. I'm only sorry I couldn't have had as good a chance as a boy, and have been put to my trade regularly." A year later she died, and although she made inventions that changed the world - you can still see her work in the bottom of your grocery bag - she left less than $300 in assets including her furniture.

Copyright 2001 William S. Hammack Enterprises