“...often undervalued, the paper bag will keep doing its job.”
December 5, 2017 7:00 PM   Subscribe

The Secret Feminist History of Brown Paper Bags [Eater] “Few things are as useful as the paper bag. In the United States, people use (and reuse) 10 billion of them every year. Who among us has gotten through life, likely as a child, without opening up a brown paper bag filled with a sandwich, juice box, and a piece of fruit? Or, later in life, enjoyed an alcoholic beverage in a public place with the illegal item safely ensconced inside a bag? But paper bags have been around for so long, and in so many forms, that few have ever stopped to wonder where they came from in the first place. Even fewer know that paper bags were involved in not one but two feminist crusades.”

• In the Bag [MoMA]
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. 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.
• The invention of the paper bag was a triumph of feminism [Aeon]
“Her work on the machine also bled into her shifts at the factory. This initially annoyed her superiors – until she showed them her plans – which led them to believe that she had a ‘keener eye than any man in the works’. After a ‘rickety’ wooden model of her machine proved successful, producing thousands of ‘good, handsome bags’, she had an iron version produced in 1868. While the machine was at a Boston shop to be refined, it was viewed by Charles F Annan, a would-be-inventor of dubious morality. Knight prepared to apply for a patent for her new machine. In 1871, she was shocked to find that Annan had already been granted a patent to the machine, which he claimed as his own. The dispute ended up in court, where the cash-strapped Knight spent $100 a day to hire a patent attorney to prove that she was the machine’s true inventor. Annan’s lawyer argued that an uneducated, self-taught woman could never have built such a sophisticated machine. He was countered at every turn by the mountains of physical evidence and eye-witness testimony Knight produced. ‘I have from my earliest recollection been connected in some way with machinery,’ Knight protested.”
• Brown Paper Bag Fold [Origama Resource Center]
1. Fold a corner of a brown paper bag at a 45 degree angle. This forms a triangular layer on top.
2. Fold the pointy corner down so the pointed tip extends beyond the horizontal layer made in step 1.
3. Tuck the pointy corner under the layer made in step 1. Note: this only works if there is enough material to tuck under.
4. Voila! A convenient and secure handle where once there was none.
• Short Documentary: Margaret E. Knight, Inventor < small>[YouTube][8:20]
Meet Margaret E. Knight, known as -the female Thomas Edison-. She was true to her nature and inspite of hardships became successful in the field of mechanical design.
posted by Fizz (18 comments total) 61 users marked this as a favorite
 
Oh damn that’s a really nice bit of applied origami. I should see if it’ll work to close up a half-eaten plastic bag of snacks, too.
posted by egypturnash at 7:07 PM on December 5 [2 favorites]


He was countered at every turn by the mountains of physical evidence and eye-witness testimony Knight produced.

As if that mattered.
posted by Miko at 7:35 PM on December 5 [6 favorites]


Oooh. I had never heard of Margaret Knight or thought about how the flat-bottomed paper bag came to be. This was really interesting, but I was not surprised when I got to this in the aeon article:
In the end, the commissioner of patents found in favour of Knight, though officials could not resist chastising her for waiting so long to apply for her patent. However, since Knight was not a ‘man of business’, this oversight was forgiven.
Of course.
posted by julen at 7:36 PM on December 5 [6 favorites]


I should see if it’ll work to close up a half-eaten plastic bag of snacks

You are looking for this.
posted by sjswitzer at 7:36 PM on December 5 [4 favorites]


So that bit about the women in New Jersey in 1973 who sent their children to school with brown bag lunches so they were not forced to be at home at lunch time to feed and receive their children. Whose elementary school children were then expelled over it. Which women then sued the school. These are things I wish I had known when I was in grade school (a bit later in the 70's). though I know I would not have understood it all. or at least have learned when I was a young woman.

It's so infuriating, first, that these women had to fight for basic shit like not having to sit at home all day for children who are safely somewhere else and, second, that no-one ever tells you that they did this for you.

We still have to protest this shit because all the history of being successful the first time around is hidden, is forgotten, is uncelebrated. I suppose the children themselves knew the stories, but I can imagine how the telling of it was belittled in their home and communities. Then I become angry again that they were not given their due and that in our abandoning of their stories, we have created a world in which the changes they made are not simply taken for granted but are becoming less guaranteed every day.
posted by crush at 7:46 PM on December 5 [46 favorites]


Oh, hey, her wikipedia page has some of her patent drawings (sole cutting machine! a window + sash where you could open the window out at an angle or push the whole window out, the paper bag machine, etc.)

Wow, her inventions are diverse - a dress shield, a counting mechanism, car engine parts, can-opening pliers, safety mechanisms and so forth. She had a mind agile enough to identify problems, figure out ways to solve them, and implement them without specializing in one particular area or discipline. That's pretty impressive.
posted by julen at 7:46 PM on December 5 [14 favorites]


"So that bit about the women in New Jersey in 1973 who sent their children to school with brown bag lunches so they were not forced to be at home at lunch time to feed and receive their children."

When I was in elementary school in the early 80s, in the suburbs, kids were expected to go home for lunch if they lived within half a mile of the school (as a great many did, these were commuter suburbs based around a train station so were pretty walkable still at that time, many families were single-car families until the mid-80s, and the sprawly gated developments where you couldn't walk to the train didn't come until later). I lived 7/8 of a mile from the school, so not QUITE far enough for the bus, but I brown-bagged it at school because that was too far to walk home and back, the school had decided. But yeah, even in the 80s, they were EXPECTING kids to go home at lunch, ASSUMING that mom would be there, and make hot lunch.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:17 PM on December 5 [2 favorites]


What a fascinating story! Thanks for posting it!

Quick question: where can I find a photo of Margaret Knight? I keep finding this picture-- but this is not a photo of someone who died in 1914 (at the age of 76). It's a woman with a 1940s hairstyle, clothes and makeup. She's lovely, but I have no idea why people insist this is Margaret Knight. Where is Margaret Knight!?
posted by suburbanbeatnik at 10:20 PM on December 5


It was the 70's. My mom was into recycling. I went home for lunch every day until we moved too far away so I had to eat lunch at school. I saw everybody with their brown paper bags. I knew I didn't want a lunchbox. The idea of people paying actual money for small brown paper bags, on a regular basis yet, seemed weird to me and I was afraid to ask my mom about it. I remember wondering how everybody else's lucky families did so much shopping that they had a spare brown paper bag each day to put their kid's lunches in . . .
posted by serena15221 at 10:41 PM on December 5


Who among us has gotten through life, likely as a child, without opening up a brown paper bag filled with a sandwich, juice box, and a piece of fruit?

This is an interesting article, and I had no idea about the history of the brown paper bag. But I never took my lunch in one.

I took a metal Aladdin lunch box with matching Thermos to school. My parents were no environmentalists, but they were working class children of working class parents who grew up during the Great Depression. Using a paper bag every day would have been seen as wasteful. I occasionally got a new lunch box as a birthday present, as the metal ones took a lot of abuse over time.
posted by Fleebnork at 7:15 AM on December 6


This paper bag/lunch box discussion is funny because it illustrates how different people's ideas are of what is "wasteful." I always longed for a metal cartoon character lunchbox, but didn't get one because they were expensive and a waste of money. Paper bags were cheaper, at least according to my mother, who was probably silently judging the other mothers for buying lunchboxes who were in turn silently judging her for wasting money on paper bags.

I've been looking for a picture of Margaret Knight but haven't found one. Maybe there's one in an archive in Massachusetts somewhere.
posted by interplanetjanet at 8:18 AM on December 6 [1 favorite]


My earliest elementary years in the 1970s were spent in the suburbs of Chicago and I walked to and from school but never home for lunch. I had a Snoopy lunch box (with a Thermos!) then. When we moved to Indiana, I got a Scooby Doo lunch box (sadly, no Thermos) and never used brown paper bags for lunch.

When my kids were in elementary school in the early 2000s, they were required to use paper bags on field trips, I guess to make sure no one lost their lunchboxes and to make it easier on the teachers. I didn't like it, figuring it was my kid's responsibility to keep track of their lunchbox and using the bags felt really wasteful but I went along.
posted by cooker girl at 8:39 AM on December 6


My mom started me out with a lunchbox, some plastic thing with cartoons on it, Ninja Turtles probably.

But after forgetting my lunch inside and letting it rot because it was left at school or in the back of the car over a weekend one too many times.

I was switched over to brown paper bags.
posted by Fizz at 9:22 AM on December 6


When I was in elementary school in the early 80s, in the suburbs, kids were expected to go home for lunch if they lived within half a mile of the school

Wow. I was a little surprised by the 1973 incident, but *1980s*? I was in elementary school in the 70s, and I don't think we were even *allowed* to leave campus, much less expected to walk home for lunch. We had hot lunches to buy or bag/lunchbox.
posted by tavella at 9:46 AM on December 6


Mid '80s. Elementary school. I wanted brown paper bags for my lunches more than anything in the world. I hated my black metal lunchbox with the white pattern my mom had painted on it. I was mortified by it. It epitomized all of the ways I was different (dirt poor, thrift store clothes, hippie-food lunches). I remember staring at other kids' paper bags with an envy I can can still feel in my gut.
posted by not_the_water at 9:55 AM on December 6 [2 favorites]


Today I learned... a number of things, actually.

Thank you, Fizz.
posted by seyirci at 1:16 PM on December 6


Those flat-bottomed paper grocery bags were briefly introduced into the U.K. by Safeway. I thought they were great, but they were never adopted more widely and I think they disappeared again even before Safeway did.
posted by Segundus at 3:36 PM on December 6 [1 favorite]


I was supposed to fold the paper bag and bring it home to reuse it at least twice. It was a red letter day when I finally got a lunch box.
posted by BlueHorse at 6:41 PM on December 6


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