Many examples of good design have become so ubiquitous that we tend to gloss over the innovations they embody. Flat-bottomed grocery bags—humble objects incorporating design principles fundamental to the way we inhabit the modern world—are a case in point. The bag’s standardized, geometric form and economical use of materials are defining features of industrial production and distribution. The folded bag can be stored flat; when open, its groundbreaking flat bottom creates a sturdy, stable container. The use of paper, an organic and recyclable material, resonates strongly with contemporary environmental concerns.
An industrially produced object is the culmination of numerous small yet complex design decisions and can involve many different individuals as it progresses from concept to prototyping and then finally to manufacture and distribution on a mass scale. Details of this process are often difficult to unearth, particularly when the design is produced over a long period. For the flat-bottomed paper bag, however, legal documents lead us back to Knight, one of the first women to obtain a US patent, in 1871. Her patented machine produced flat-bottomed bags that were a great improvement on the earlier, structurally weaker envelope style. With only minor modifications, such bags remain in production today, making this one of the oldest and most enduring designs in the Museum’s collection.
Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)
Standardization—of bags, tins, and cupboards for food storage—was an early defining feature of the modern kitchen. Although the design of the flat–bottomed paper grocery bag as we know it today underwent numerous refinements, the principal innovation can be traced to Knight’s design of a bag machine patented in 1871. The flat bottoms were a great improvement on the earlier, structurally weaker envelope–style paper bag. This US patent was one of the first awarded to a woman.
Gallery label from Designing Modern Women 1890–1990, October 5, 2013–October 1, 2014.