November 3, 2010  |  Collection & Exhibitions, Counter Space
In the Bag

Brown Bag

The research subject: a brown paper bag. Simple, right? Nope.

After Counter Space opened, an AP reporter brought it to our attention that a reader was disputing the attribution of a brown paper bag on display in the exhibition. Our label recognized Charles Stilwell as the designer, noting a patent registered in 1883 to Union Paper Bag Machine Company. (Our bag, a modern example of this well-established form, was manufactured in 2005 by Duro Bag Manufacturing Co.) Sitting in the very first case in the gallery, alongside sugar cubes (developed in the early 1870s) and a Catharine Beecher drawing of a kitchen storage wall (1869), this bag was meant to represent standardization as an early defining feature of the modern kitchen. Because design attribution, especially for the Humble Masterpieces in our collection, can be a sticky pursuit, we fully acknowledged that our label might not tell the complete story of this familiar object, and took the AP query as a prompt to hit the primary sources (avoiding the mess of “histories” offered on so many websites). Since it’s actually pretty interesting, I thought I’d share with you some of the research that resulted, which we have since used to enrich our object file for this work, as well as to update our exhibition label.

Francis Wolle, active in the early 1850s, is considered the first inventor of the modern paper bag. Based in Pennsylvania, he cofounded the Union Paper Bag Machine Company in 1869, as well as becoming ordained as a deacon and following passions in entomology and botany. Union was supported financially by wealthy manufacturers, who thereby secured rights to patents secured by the company and divvied up the country into market segments to avoid direct competition. One of these characters was industrialist George West of Saratoga County, New York, also known as the “Paper Bag King.” Originally from England, he established himself in Ballston Spa, owned ten paper mills, and became a member of the New York State Assembly and the House of Representatives.

A female worker ties bundles of paper bags for the Union Paper Bag Manufacturing Co., founded in 1869 by Francis Wolle, at its factory in Savannah, Georgia. 1939. Photograph by Margaret Bourke-White. Source: Google/LIFE photo archive.

It was slightly later that a woman named Margaret Knight, working for another company, the Columbia Paper Bag Company of Springfield, MA, designed a machine that could produce flat/square-bottomed paper bags, a great improvement on the earlier, structurally weaker envelope-style bag design. As a result, it is Knight who is more widely recognized as the inventor of the paper bag in the general form of the one shown in Counter Space. She’s also believed to be the first woman to achieve a U.S. patent.

First illustration page from Margaret Knight's 1871 patent for a machine that could produce flat-bottomed paper bags

First illustration page from Margaret Knight's 1871 patent for a machine that could produce flat-bottomed paper bags

Engineer/professor/design historian Henry Petroski describes Knight’s “industrial origami” method in his book Small Things Considered: Why There Is No Perfect Design (2003):

Knight’s machine worked by pulling from a roll of paper stock a sheet that it immediately started to form into a tube. Paste was applied where one side of the paper overlapped the other, thus completing the tube. Knight’s machine performed its greatest magic by shaping the end of the tube into a flat bottom by means of a series of three folds…the first fold formed the end of the tube into a slit diamond, the second creased the other tip over to form an elongated hexagon. With the proper pasting taking place simultaneously with the folding, the closed bottom was formed quickly. The bag was completed by being severed from the continuously forming tube, at which point the cycle was repeated.

However, our paper bag also reflects the design developments of the following years (starting around 1883) made by Charles Stilwell of Massachusetts/Pennsylvania (originally Fremont, Ohio), who improved on Knight’s machine to produce flat-bottomed paper bags—now with pleated sides for easier folding and stacking (satchel-style)—more quickly and cost-effectively. This type was given the nickname “S.O.S.” (self-opening-sack), and really provided the model for the mass-produced paper bags we know today.

The speed and scale of paper-bag production facilitated by Stilwell’s design was revolutionary for the industry. In The Growth of a Century (1894), for example, John A. Haddock describes the Paper Mill and Bag Factory of the Taggart Brothers’ Company in Watertown, NY: “In the bag-manufacturing room they have one machine that makes a bag with satchel-bottom, direct from the roll, at the rate of 3,600 finished bags per hour, completing with ease 25,000 fifty-pound flour sacks in ten hours. The use of this, the “Stilwell” machine, is limited to a very few mills. Mr. B. B. Taggart was one of the first to aid in developing the original device, and when he sold his interest in the machine at a round profit, he reserved the right to manufacture at his own mills. This very ingenious and complicated machine takes in paper at one end and turns out bags at the other with a rapidity that is astonishing.”

When Stilwell began working for the Union Paper Bag Machine Company in Philadelphia in the mid-1880s, he continued improving on his bag/machinery design. He went on to register several patents, one of which (from 1889) illustrates a bag nearly identical to the modern example by Duro.

Stilwell's 1889 patent, illustrating familiar bag construction

Of course, given the stakes for emerging designers and manufacturers to lay claim to such a useful (and, we now know, enduring) design, there were several legal cases between competing companies developing in the 1880s and battling over patent infringement, such as Union Paper Bag Machine Co. v. Standard Paper Bag Machine Co. in 1886 and New York Paper Bag Machine Co. v. Union Paper Bag Machine Co in 1887. And it should be noted that other designers/inventors were active in this area and patented further paper bag and bag machine designs in the US, including Horatio G. Armstrong of Trenton (1873); Lorenzo D. Benner of Boston (1873); James S. Ostrander of Dayton (1873); Nicholas Biedinger of Cincinnati (1873); Anton Müller of Cincinnati (1874); Thomas W. Grinter of Cincinnatti (1875); Clarence A. Chandler of East Bridgewater, MA (1883); Oscar W. Allison of Rochester, NY (1884), whose patent was also assigned to the Union Paper Bag Machine Company; and William B. Purvis of Philadelphia (1890), among others!

Following this research, we reached a conclusion which updates our design attribution to be more fair and accurate. Charles Stilwell is responsible for key developments in paper-bag design and industrial production that led to the examples made today, but we have decided to also credit Margaret E. Knight for her role in making possible the flat-bottom form. As a result (and because patent dates don’t necessarily indicate design dates), we have broadened the date attribution for our bag to represent the ongoing design development over two decades (1870s-80s). Accordingly, a new label has been created and placed alongside our deceptively simple bag in Counter Space.