Margaret E. Knight

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Margaret E. Knight

Margaret E. Knight
Margaret Eloise Knight

(1838-02-14)February 14, 1838
DiedOctober 12, 1914(1914-10-12) (aged 76)
Known forMachine to produce flat-bottomed paper bags
Notable work
Paper bag machine
Parent(s)Hannah Teal and James Knight

Margaret Eloise Knight (February 14, 1838 – October 12, 1914[1]) was an American inventor, notably of a machine to produce flat-bottomed paper bags. She has been called "the most famous 19th-century woman inventor".[2] She founded the Eastern Paper Bag Company in 1870, creating paper bags for groceries similar in form to the ones that would be used in later generations.

Summary of life[edit]

Margaret E. Knight was born in York, Maine on February 14, 1838 to Hannah Teal and James Knight. After her father died, “Mattie,” as her parents nicknamed her, moved to Manchester, New Hampshire and was raised by her widowed mother. Any formal education she had was limited to secondary school but that did not stop her from creating a clever device at a young age. As a little girl, Knight preferred to play with woodworking tools instead of dolls, stating that “the only things [she] wanted were a jack knife, a gimlet, and pieces of wood.” Although her friends were horrified, her deep interest in tools and making different mechanical things for her brother like kites and sleds led to her first invention at the age of 12.[3][4][5]

Like many people during the industrial era in the US, Knight’s brothers worked at a local cotton textile mill and when visiting one day, she saw a loom malfunction and its shuttle hit a worker. She then decided to create a device that restrained shuttles from falling out of the looms by turning off the entire machine when something went wrong. It was of the first innovations to touch a range of industries. Knight worked at the cotton textile mills as well until her late teens and then throughout her 20s and 30s worked short-term jobs like home repairs, upholstery, daguerreotype, photography, and ambrotype.

After the civil war as an adult in 1867, she went to work at the Columbia Paper Bag Company located in [Springfield, Massachusetts]. She noticed that the machine-made paper bags they produced were weak and narrow. The more useful and sturdy flat-bottomed paper bags needed to be made by hand. Her idea was to mechanize the process of flat-bottom bag making too. In 1871 she tried to get her first patent for the device but Charles F. Annan took her idea and petitioned a similar patent. After fighting for days and spending hundreds of dollars, she was awarded the patent at the age of 32. She actually received 87 patents throughout her career, 27 being for well-known inventions. She ended up living a life of creation after creation, inventing close to 100 new things like shoe cutting devices, a rotary engine, and a dress and skirt shield. She founded the Eastern Paper Bag Company in Hartford, Connecticut in addition to her other works.

Knight lived until the age of 76 in Framingham, Massachusetts where she never stopped coming up with new ways to solve problems. Knight was described as “woman Edison” through an obituary when she died on October 12, 1914. [6]

Early life[edit]

Knight was born on February 14, 1838, in York, Maine to James Knight and Hannah Teal. After her father died when she was young, Knight's family moved to Manchester, New Hampshire. She received a basic education, but left school with her siblings to work at a cotton mill. At the age of 12, Knight witnessed an accident at the mill where a worker was stabbed by a steel-tipped shuttle that shot out of a mechanical loom. Within weeks, she invented a safety device for the loom that was later adopted by other Manchester mills. The device was never patented and the exact nature of it is unknown, though it may have been either a device to stop the loom when the shuttle thread broke or a guard to physically block a flying shuttle.[7] Health problems precluded Knight from continuing to work at the cotton mill. In her teens and early 20s she held several jobs, including home repair, photography, and engraving.[7]


Knight moved to Springfield, Massachusetts in 1867 and was hired by the Columbia Paper Bag Company.[7] In 1868, Knight invented a machine that folded and glued paper to form the flat-bottomed brown paper bags familiar to shoppers today. Knight built a wooden model of the device, but needed a working iron model to apply for a patent. Charles Annan, who was in the machine shop where Knight's iron model was being built, stole her design and patented the device. Knight filed a successful patent interference lawsuit and was awarded the patent in 1871.[8] With a Massachusetts business partner, Knight established the Eastern Paper Bag Co. and received royalties.

Her many other inventions included lid removing pliers, a numbering machine, a window frame and sash, patented in 1894, and several devices relating to rotary engines, patented between 1902 and 1915.[9]

Knight never married and died on October 12, 1914, at the age of 76.[10]

A plaque recognizing her as the "first woman awarded a U.S. patent" and holder of 87 U.S. patents hangs on the Curry Cottage at 287 Hollis St in Framingham. However, Knight was not actually the first: either Mary Kies or Hannah Slater also have that honor.[11][12][13][14]

Knight was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2006.[1] A scaled-down but fully functional patent model of her original bag-making machine is in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C.[15]


Knight was a woman who successfully patented many of her very inventions, however it wasn't done with ease or without obstacles. It was well known that Knight had not received credit for her work as a young teenager when she was still working at the cotton mill and that she was not allowed to patent her very own design.[16] She overcame a surprising amount of adversities considering the fact that she was a woman inventor in the late 1800's to the early 1900's.

Even though she overcame many barriers in the life of women in the 1800's and was deemed 'successful', she was never able to profit from her inventions due to her sex.[17] Another reason Knight was dismissed so often was because she wasn't a wealthy or highly educated woman.[18] Due to the time Knight was alive she also faced the disadvantage of making much less money than men due to the hierarchy of sex. Most women during that time period were paid half or even less than what the average man was making in the workforce.[19] Knight was aware of that type of limitation among many more. However, sex was a particular obstacle, as she is quoted to have said;

I’m only sorry I couldn’t have had as good a chance as a boy...

Unequal pay also existed due to the economic boom with industrialization, meaning that most women who weren't homemakers and men who lacked higher paying and successful jobs turned to working in factories.[19] This making it more difficult for women to simultaneously pay for their basic needs and try to receive education.  

Description of Invention[edit]

Paper Bag Making Machine: While working at the Columbia Paper Bag Company, she developed a proposal for mechanizing the production of flat-bottomed paper bags, which had hitherto been made by hand. She experimented with models of machines that could automatically fold, cut, and paste flat-bottomed paper bags. She looked at several iron and wooden models, finally deciding on an iron one that she applied for patent 9202 with. She acquired two more patents later on as she made improvements to the device that allowed the machine to work more efficiently and allow mass production.

The problem was that existing machine-produced paper bags were narrow, weak, and envelope-shaped, lacking a sturdy base to facilitate packing. Knight recognized that flat square-bottomed shaped bags were more practical and sturdy. She was not, however, the first person to come up with the idea of a flat-bottomed bag. They were already in general use in England, having been produced by hand since at least the 1840s, and improvements to hand-production techniques occurred during the 1850s: for example, a patent was awarded to James Baldwin of Birmingham in 1853 for semi-mechanized apparatus to use in the making of flat-bottomed paper bags.[20] Knight's machine enabled the mass manufacture of these kind of bags, much increasing the speed and consistency of production.


Works about her[edit]

  • Emily Arnold McCully: Marvelous Mattie: How Margaret E. Knight Became an Inventor. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006. 32pp. ISBN 0-374-34810-3. (Children's book which was recognized as one of the "best feminist books for young readers, 2007," awarded by the Amelia Bloomer Project of the Feminist Task Force of the American Library Association.)
  • DiMeo, Nate. no. 116,842 The Memory Palace Podcast Episode 78, November 5, 2015. (Podcast detailing Margaret Knight, her early life and inventions.)
  • Marilyn Bailey Ogilvie: Women in science: antiquity through the nineteenth century: a biographical dictionary with annotated bibliography. 3rd ed. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA 1991, ISBN 0-262-65038-X, p. 110 f.
  • Sam Maggs: Wonder Women: 25 Innovators, Inventors, and Trailblazers who Changed History, published by Quirk Books on October 24, 2016, distributed by Penguin House. (A section detailing Knight's most notable inventions and her life.)

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Inventor profile". National Inventors Hall of Fame.
  2. ^ Petroski, Henry (2003). Small Things Considered. New York: Vintage Books. p. 101. ISBN 1-4000-3293-8.
  3. ^ "Margaret E Knight". Paper Discovery Center. Retrieved May 30, 2021.
  4. ^ "Margaret E. Knight Facts". American History For Kids. February 20, 2020. Retrieved May 30, 2021.
  5. ^ Smith, Ryan P. "Meet the Female Inventor Behind Mass-Market Paper Bags". Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved May 30, 2021.
  6. ^ "Margaret E. Knight | American inventor". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved May 30, 2021.
  7. ^ a b c Sisson, Mary (2008). "Knight, Margaret". Inventors and Inventions, Volume 4. New York: Marshall Cavendish. pp. 975–980. ISBN 978-0-7614-7767-9.
  8. ^ U.S. Patent 116,842 Improvement in Paper-Bag Machines, July 11, 1871.
  9. ^ Margaret E. Knight at the Encyclopædia Britannica
  10. ^ "Margaret E Knight". Paper Discovery Center. Retrieved May 30, 2021.
  11. ^ Blakemore, Erin. "Meet Mary Kies, America's First Woman to Become a Patent Holder". Retrieved August 11, 2016.
  12. ^ "Women Inventors | History Detectives | PBS". Retrieved August 10, 2016.
  13. ^ "First Women Inventors | History of American Women". Retrieved August 10, 2016.
  14. ^ "10 Key Dates in Women's History: The Early Modern Period | Britannica Blog". Retrieved August 10, 2016.
  15. ^ Smith, Ryan P. "Meet the Female Inventor Behind Mass-Market Paper Bags". Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved November 5, 2020.
  16. ^ "Margaret Knight | Lemelson". Retrieved November 10, 2020.
  17. ^ "Margaret E. Knight | American inventor". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved October 4, 2020.
  18. ^ "Margaret Knight, Inventor (Invented Machine to Make Paper Bags)". The Invisible Mentor. August 3, 2011. Retrieved October 4, 2020.
  19. ^ a b "Women in the Industrial Workforce - Ohio History Central". Retrieved November 10, 2020.
  20. ^ Patent No.2190, Apparatus for Making Paper Bags (22 September 1853). Noted in The London Gazette, 30 September 1853, issue 21481.

External links[edit]