Peter Takes on History
July 12, 1859
Mother of the Paper Bag
OK, here’s a word I didn’t know until after midnight; totally Webster, real word - Backronym.
Backronym is a reverse acronym. That is, the initials existed first and people added the words later. Like Spam, right? Hormel (and they ought to know) says SPAM is short for spiced ham. During WWII soldiers called it Specially Processed Army Meat. How about SOS? Turns out, doesn’t mean a thing. It’s just dot dot dot dash dash dash dot dot dot.
Easy to transmit. Unambiguous. A distress signal the German government came up with in 1906. In Morse Code it’s SOS so people figured it had to stand for something so, Save Our Ship.
Actually before SOS became an international distress symbol, it did stand for something. Self-Opening Sack. That’s what Charles Stillwell called his paper bags in his 1883 patent application. Just the same bags we have today, flat bottoms, with the v-shaped crease that allows them to fold flat and store so neatly in your pantry. Now Stillwell didn’t invent the paper bag. There were paper bags before his invention, they just didn’t have the crease and fold. As a matter of fact there was a gentleman named William Goodale who, on this day, July 12th, 1859 received a patent for a machine to cut and assemble simpler paper bags. That’s why today, July 12th, is National Paper Bag Day!
Now, if you know your paper bag history, you know I’ve omitted an important inventor who fit between Goodale in 1859 and Stillwell in 1883, a woman known as “The Mother of the Paper Bag”, Margeret “Mattie” Knight.
Now Mattie was a born innovator; famous for her kites and homemade sleds that were the envy of every boy in her home town of York, Maine.
Daughter of a poor family, by age twelve she had a job in a mill where she witnessed a horrific accident. A metal shuttle flew off a loom and impaled a worker. Apparently, this happened often. Well Mattie was determined that it wouldn’t happen again. She invented a safety device that prevented this common accident. Her shield became common in area mills but Mattie never applied for a patent.
Her first patented invention came in 1870; a pneumatic paper feed for printing presses. It was not only Mattie's first patent, it was one of the first patents issued to a female inventor in US history. But Mattie was just getting started.
In 1867 Mattie moved to Springfield Massachusetts and got a job with the Columbia Paper Bag Company. You see this circle closing, right? Columbia was manufacturing bags in the style of Goodale - bags that in shape and construction resembled tall, skinny greeting card envelopes. They were weak and narrow and couldn’t stand on their own. Mattie saw the obvious advantage of having a flat bottom paper bags. She didn’t invent flat bottomed paper bags. They’d been around for decades. The thing was, they were expensive and had to be handmade. What earned Mattie the nickname “Mother of the Paper Bag” was the machine she designed to manufacture flat bottom paper bags.
She worked on perfecting that machine for two years. She did all the patent drawings and hired a machinist who’d begun constructing the functional scale model required for her patent application. Unfortunately, another machinist saw her design, did a set of drawings and applied for the patent before she could! Mattie was outraged and, at great expense, took this scoundrel to court. Her opponent’s claim rested on the then contemporary prejudice that a woman could not possibly understand the mechanical complexities of such a machine! Well she proved him wrong. She was able to produce notes, drawings, models and witnesses. Mattie prevailed and became something of a cause celebre! She was even decorated by Queen Victoria of England in 1871. See, about this same time the woman’s suffrage movement was picking up steam and Mattie’s triumph was another blow against the flimsy arguments used by those who opposed universal suffrage.
Margeret “Mattie” Knight went on to receive 30 patents on more than 88 inventions including everything from a window sash to a rotary engine.
Never willing to give up her workshop for an office, she chose to sell her inventions and live on royalties. In 1913, a year before her death, the New York Times reported that she was an active women’s rights advocate and still working 20 hours a day on her 89th invention.
So, happy National Paper Bag Day! Next time someone says, “Paper or plastic,” think of Margaret “Mattie” Knight