Meet Margaret E Knight – The Paper Bag Pioneer Who Had Her Inventions Stolen by a Man by Women Rock Science

(Cross-posted from Women Rock Science)


Meet Margaret E Knight, the factory girl and child inventor who grew up to become America’s Paper bag queen. Margaret or Mattie as she was known had been inventing various factory machinery since she was 12 years old. She is credited with inventing the machinery for the flat bottomed paper bag; one of America’s most iconic products and the mainstay of supermarkets and school lunches everywhere. Her invention was so spectacular that another inventor, Charles Annan, spied on her work and stole it from her.


Before Mattie, paper bags only came in envelope style, very flimsy and impractical. For several years, engineers had tried but couldn’t come up with a machine that could mass produce and manufacture flat bottomed paper bags and if it couldn’t be manufactured then it couldn’t be produced for the public. Mattie, who worked at a paper bag factory, decided to focus on this problem and designed a new type of machinery able to produce 1000’s of flat bottomed bags at once, it revolutionised the paper bag industry.


Mattie’s Patent

Due to her poverty and lowly status it took Mattie 3 years to take her idea from prototype to the patent office. In this time another inventor, Charles Annan, deceptively spied on her work, stole her designs and filed a patent in his own name for her inventions. Mattie found out and took him to court, fortunately her drawings, diary entries, paper cuttings and knowledge proved him wrong and Knight was eventually awarded the patent for her designs in 1871.

Mattie’s initial prototype

In total Mattie is credited with about 90 inventions and 22 patents in everything from shoe making and skirt protectors to boring machinery and sleeve valve engines for cars. Her passion for design started as a very young child. Armed with only a notepad and her deceased father’s toolbox she made sledges, kites and jumping jacks for her older brothers and a foot warmer to keep her mother warm whilst she worked cold nights. At the age of just 12 she made her first invention. After noticing a serious accident at the cotton mill where her brothers worked, Mattie invented a stop motion safety device for looms to prevent workers getting injured. As an adult, Mattie became a celebrity, she was awarded the Royal Legion of Honour by Queen Victoria in England and in 1913 the NY Times reported that Knights paper bag was in “universal use”


Women Rock Science: A site dedicated to celebrating the achievements of women and girls in science

2 thoughts on “Meet Margaret E Knight – The Paper Bag Pioneer Who Had Her Inventions Stolen by a Man by Women Rock Science”

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