Margaret Knight (1838-1914), Inventor of Paper Grocery Bag
Invented a machine that could create the square-bottomed grocery bag that is still used today
Margaret Knight was born in York, Maine in 1838, and as a child she loved devising different types of toys for herself and her siblings to play with.
Her father died when she was 12, and she went to work in a textile mill to help the 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. 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.
Worked in a Paper Bag Factory
By 1868 she was working in the Columbia Paper Bag Company in Springfield, Massachusetts. 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.
At first she created a wooden model but to be apply for the patent, she needed a working model made of iron. She took the project to a machine shop in Boston, and one of the workers there—Charles Annan—stole the idea and applied for a patent. Knight was able to file a lawsuit against Annan, and in 1871 she received the patent.
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 in the Eastern Paper Bag Company started production.
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.
Knight never had a family, and she died in 1914.