The Springfield origins of the paper bag

knight paper bag patent drawings
Drawings for Knight’s paper bag patent. Via MoMA’s Inside/Out blog.

Regular favorite of this author, The Boston Globe’s Brainiac blog has a post on the age-old question: who invented the paper bag? Brainiac is chiming into the much-watched debate in which MoMA curator Aidan O’Connor and an irate, historically-minded visitor who questioned the historical accuracy of a caption in the museum’s kitchen design exhibit.

Brainiac summarizes the history of the events that have since inspired an unfortunate number of paper bag puns:

MoMA had attributed the paper bag to Charles Stilwell, who is remembered here-and-there as the “inventor of the self-opening sack.” It turns out, however, that Stillwell’s method of producing the bags drew heavily upon a previous method invented and patented by Margaret Knight. Knight worked at the Columbia Paper Bag Company here in Springfield, MA, and, O’Connor writes, is “believed to be the first woman to achieve a U.S. patent.”

As the blog notes, “The whole story [with great photos] is like a time-warp back to industrial-revolution America,” but most interestingly, it does reveal some of the complexities involved in nailing down long-past historical events. As a result of the online back and forth, the plaque in the museum has been changed to list Stillwell and Knight as co-inventors.


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