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Everyday Marvels

Explore some of the humble but revolutionary objects that have changed the way we interact with and engage in the world.

Flat-Bottomed Paper Bag

Margaret E. Knight, Charles B. Stilwell
(American, n. d.), (American, n. d.)

1889. Paper, .1-3: 17 x 12 x 6 3/4" (43.2 x 30.5 x 17.1 cm) .4-6: 13 3/4 x 7 x 4" (34.9 x 17.8 x 10.2 cm) .7-9: 12 1/2 x 6 x 4" (31.8 x 15.2 x 10.2 cm) .10-13: 9 3/4 x 5 x 3" (24.8 x 12.7 x 7.6 cm) .14-16: 8 1/2 x 4 9/16 x 3" (21.6 x 11.6 x 7.6 cm)

The flat-bottomed paper bag, a seemingly uncomplicated object, is in fact the outcome of several iterations and innovations in both its design and mode of production. The first version of the paper bag, invented by Francis Wolle in the early 1850s,1 was an envelope-shaped bag, which was limited in terms of its durability and amount of interior space. In the 1870s Margaret Knight, who worked for the Columbia Paper Bag Company of Springfield, Massachusetts, designed a machine that could produce flat bags that could be unfolded to the square-bottomed paper bags we know today. The new flat-bottomed design could stand upright and had a larger capacity. In 1883 Charles Stilwell further developed Knight’s design for the bag by improving upon the machine used to produce them. The paper bag gained increased popularity because in addition to its usefulness as a container for goods, merchants could now use the bag as advertising by printing their logo and brand name on it.

Aidan O'Conner, In The Bag, blog post, November 3, 2010.

Pioneering Woman
Margaret Knight is believed to be the first woman to hold a U.S. patent, for her design of the paper bag.

Charles Stilwell’s design for a paper bag with its pleated sides was nicknamed “S.O.S.” for “self-opening sack.”