“I’m not surprised at 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.”
The next time you pick up a tasty burger and the cashier puts your food into a convenient takeaway bag, you have a radical lady named Margaret Knight to thank. No, not for the burger (because that would be a disgustingly old burger), but for the essential invention so commonplace we take it for granted: the humble flat-bottomed paper bag.
Speaking of humble, our story begins in 1838 with a poor family in York, Maine. Margaret Knight was born the youngest of five children, with two older brothers and sisters. After the death of Margaret’s father, her widowed mother moved the family to Manchester, New Hampshire, where she put the kids to work in the local cotton mills (this is pre-child-labor laws). Margaret would often visit her older brothers at work, running underfoot (pro tip: Do not do this in nineteenth-century cotton mills) to bring her sibs their lunches. It was on one of these visits that twelve-year-old Margaret experienced what she would later call the happiest moment of her entire career: she witnessed a steel-tipped loom shuttle as it fell and injured a worker. (Er, which is not the part she liked! Bear with me, here.)
See, young Margaret was already prone to tinkering. Instead of dolls, “the only things I wanted were a jack-knife, a gimlet, and pieces of wood,” she once recalled. “My friends were horrified. I was called a tomboy; but that made very little impression on me….I was always making things for my brothers: did they want any thing in the line of playthings, they always said, ‘Mattie will make them for us.’ I was famous for my kites; and my sleds were the envy and admiration of all the boys in town.” With her super-smart inventor-brain in tip-top shape from all that toy inventing, Margaret figured out a way to improve the mill’s safety by equipping the shuttles with what was basically an autostop or a cover (depending on which source you believe) so they would no longer be able to injure workers. In the years that followed, her design was implemented at mills across New England.
Despite saving what was probably tons of limbs, Margaret never received a patent for her first invention, but she remained determined to support herself with her big brain. After years of bouncing from job to job in fields like photography, upholstery, and engraving, she eventually found her way to Springfield, Massachusetts, where she got a job at Columbia Paper Bag Company. There she made flat-bottomed bags by hand, earning a paltry $1.50 to $3.50 for a week of ten-hour days (a third less than the men made, of course).
At the time, machines were pretty efficient at whipping up envelope-style paper bags, which would have been awesome, except that envelope-style bags are kinda useless. (What do you put in there? Other envelope-style paper bags?) Flat-bottomed paper bags were a lot more useful, but they had to be folded and glued by hand, an incredibly expensive and labor-intensive affair that would require women like Margaret, now thirty years old, to sit on their butts all day folding and gluing. Realizing this inefficiency was impractical (and growing impatient with the myriad of dudes who had tried and failed to make a flat-bottomed paper bag machine), Margaret decided to fix the problem herself. Over the next two years, she worked on her design all the dang time. She took so much time off from her job that her manager complained (she attempted to placate him by offering to sell him the design, which fortunately he never took her up on). Finally, after tons of toil, Margaret came up with a functional wooden prototype of a flat-bottomed paper-bag manufacturing machine that did the work of thirty humans!
And this time, she was intent on patenting that sucker. The process required that she present to the patent office an iron model of her machine, something she couldn’t make on her own. So she brought her design to a machine shop to have it replicated in cold, hard metal, and all would have been well had not a certain copycat named Charles Annan popped into the shop. Annan took one look at her machine and thought, “Hm, that seems like something I would like to pretend to have invented.” He then filed a patent for it under his name. Margaret, understandably, was mega not cool with this preposterous plagiarism, and she took Annan to court—which wasn’t cheap. Now thirty-three years old and working as much as possible in real estate (and hating it), Margaret had to shell out $100 a day (!) just to keep her Washington patent lawyer in the courtroom. Adding insult to injury: Annan’s major defense of “his” invention was basically: women can’t invent stuff, so no way it’s hers.
Which sounds patently (heh) ridiculous to our modern ears, sure, but this was 1868. Women inventors were incredibly uncommon, yet they still managed to get blasted in almost as many think pieces by grumpy old white dudes as present-day grumpy old white dudes pen about Millennials and their cell phones. Even the texts that praised women’s innovations came off pretty sexist. An 1870 Scientific American column proudly announced that, despite seeming incapable of “anything higher than a pound-cake or a piece of embroidery,” women can actually build machines “fully equal to the same number of inventions selected at random from among those made by men.” Gee, thanks. At least the Boston Daily Globe would acknowledge—forty years later, in 1909—that gals doing more than the “making over of old hats” can only happen when women are afforded “the opportunity and the inclination to so exercise their talents.” No kidding.
Well, Margaret had opportunity, inclination, and a fightin’ spirit to defend her rights, and so she gathered witnesses from around Massachusetts who could attest to her machine skills. Her former bag factory boss testified that the “idea of a machine for the manufacture of square-bottomed bags originated in conversation between Miss Knight and myself” and that he “most certainly ha[d] no doubt that it was her idea.” Her mechanic said that the iron machine had been made from Margaret’s wooden design. Eliza McFarland, a gal pal of Margaret’s with whom she would later live for over forty years (though none of the literature on Margaret ever bothers to mention that detail—can’t imagine why), reported that “I know what I saw….I saw her making drawings continually…always of the machine. She has known nothing else, I think.” Describing herself, Margaret said that she had, from her “earliest recollection been connected in some way with machinery” having produced a ridiculous number of papers and models documenting her design process from as far back as 1867, including entries from her personal diary that she refused to read aloud (saucy sample entry: “Heigh ho, can’t see how to turn that fold back—unless…”). It worked: Margaret won her case, and in November 1869 she filed the necessary paperwork under “Margarett E. Knight.” She was awarded a patent in 1871 and either received or refused $50,000 for it (sources differ, but still, that’s a huge number).
After that, pretty much everyone was about the flat-bottomed paper bag, which was way, way better than the net bags or boxes people had until then used to carry groceries. Margaret teamed up with a rich business dude from Newton and founded the Eastern Paper Bag Co. in Hartford, Connecticut, but things were still sticky. According to an 1871 article in Woman’s Journal, guys were “sceptical as to her mechanical ability” (read: sexist). Other factory superintendents would tell journalists that women couldn’t be inventing things because they “cannot keep the machine in order. Their dress is objectionable, particularly hoops, which take up much room, and are in danger of getting in the machinery” (cool, more sexist delusions). But “by going daily, and working among them—detecting mistakes, and improving plans, with a keener eye than any man in the works,” Margaret made them all change their tunes. Buoyed by some hard-earned paper-bag money bulging in her pockets, she set up a workshop in Boston and a residence in Framingham. She earned a living by retaining some interest in her patents before selling them to huge companies (like the shoe-leather cutting machine she sold to Boston Rubber).
As the times changed, so did Margaret. After two years in the hospital for an unspecified illness, she began working with cars and, in her early sixties, designed a ton of different engines and engine parts run by everything from gasoline and kerosene to acetylene. The media remained fascinated with her, too. A 1912 article praising her prowess with automobiles reported that her paper bag machine continued to be widely used and that, at age seventy-five, she was still hard at work and constantly inventing. The New York Times (in response to a “well-known physician” who said that “women have failed to produce works of genius, or have made any important discoveries”) reported that at the age of seventy, Margaret was working twenty hours a day on her eighty-ninth invention (though only some twenty-odd were patented) and that she had received a Royal Legion of Honor from Queen Victoria. A Washington Herald reporter who showed up at her house for an interview “was given quite a jolt” when he discovered that “Knight” was a woman in her sixties (good pre-interview research, bud!) who preferred “to produce results rather than talk about them.” The New York Sun reported that Margaret would respond to requests for photos of her face by supplying photos of her motors. She did once grant an interview to Motor World for a profile that described her as a “rather tall, strongly-built, white haired woman” who was “gentle spoken” with little desire for fame. “I suppose that it does appear odd,” she told them, “that a woman should figure as an inventor of an engine; but in my case it came naturally. I was inclined that way, and have had to do with machinery almost all my life.” When asked her why some men’s designs at the show looked similar to hers, which she had come up with sixteen years prior, “she merely smiled, and said, ‘You may draw your own inferences.’ ” (The shade!)
Sadly, not long after enduring several additional legal battles over patents (which she won) and the death of her sister in her home, Margaret again fell ill while working on her “silent Knight motor”; after a three-month struggle she passed away on October 12, 1914. Obituaries praised her as the “woman Edison” (except maybe he was the “dude Margaret”?) and “the greatest woman inventor in America.” At the time, her portrait hung in the Patent Office in Washington, D.C., although her patent agent had gotten his hands on her likeness only by telling the media-shy Margaret that the portrait was for his wife’s personal collection.
Today, a plaque on her cottage in Framingham identifies her (incorrectly) as the first woman awarded a U.S. patent, and her paper bag machine is in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution. But you don’t have to go too far to appreciate her inventions—just swing by your local grocery store or the nearest fast-food restaurant.