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The many people behind the bag

It might seem simple enough, but the paper-bag had a lot of people working on it to get it to how it is today!
Ganesh ASFebruary 20, 2017 17:17 IST
Updated: November 10, 2021 12:22 IST

While Luther Childs Crowell, who received a patent for an improvement in paper bags on this day in 1872, is often quoted as the inventor of the flat-bottomed paper bags, the true inventor is someone else. Eager to find out? A.S.Ganesh takes you through this one…

You’ve used a brown paper bag, haven’t you? Either to collect groceries from a nearby shop, take some sandwiches for a picnic with friends, or merely to fill it with air and bang it, these bags have been ubiquitous throughout our existence. But if you were of the impression that the history behind these bags must be rather simple, you’ll have to change that right away.

You must have encountered the phrase “ little drops of water make the mighty ocean” and the story behind the flat-bottomed paper-bags would be a perfect example. For there were a number of people who constantly improved on the design to make it what it is today.

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First in line would be Francis Wolle. An American priest, Wolle invented and patented a paper-bag making machine in 1852. But considering that his bags were envelop-shaped, they were limited in terms of both usability and durability.

Next up would be Margaret Knight, one of those rare women inventors in the 19th century. Knight had a knack with tools from a very young age, as evident from the fact that she contrived a safety instrument for controlling shuttles in powered textile looms after witnessing an accident at the age of 12.

In the mid 19th century, the only flat-bottomed paper-bags available were made manually, and naturally, that meant the process was slow. Knight believed she could mechanise the process and had a sketch ready within a month.

Progressive development

A “rickety” wooden model that could produce more than 1,000 bags was out in less than half a year, and she started working with machinists to put together an iron prototype. Once the prototype was ready, she used it to apply for her patent, which she obtained in 1870, and mass produce the device.

Luther Childs Crowell comes in next and he was involved with paper bags for quite some time. He received a patent for a machine to produce paper bags in 1867 and on February 20, 1872, received another patent for a machine that made square-bottomed paper-bags. He also made numerous other improvements in terms of design.

Despite the fact that Knight received the patent for flat-bottomed paper-bags a couple of years before Crowell, for reasons unknown, Crowell’s name is associated with this invention. Not only this, Knight also had to sue Charles Anan for patent infringement.

For when she tried to apply for her patent (the one she eventually got in 1870), it was rejected on the grounds that a patent for such a machine was already granted to Anan. Anan, who had earlier examined Knight’s works when she was working with a machinist to fine-tune it further, had rushed with his work to obtain the patent. However, with witnesses from machine shops, and years worth of diagrams and plans, Knight emerged victorious in the patent battle.

Both Knight and Crowell were prolific inventors though, with hundreds of patents and numerous machines to their credit. As for flat-bottomed paper-bags, however, it was Knight who got there first before Crowell advanced it further.

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