Tasteful Inventions: The Brown Bag

Thursday, February 14, 2008

The Brown Bag

I'm delighted to be posting my first commentary at Tasteful Inventions in honor of Margaret E. Knight. Margaret Ethridge Knight, who held 27 United States Patents and who is often referred to as "Lady Edison" was born on Valentine's Day in 1838. There's a shred of irony to this. Margaret E. Knight invented a machine attachment that, doing the work of 30 people, could cut, fold, and glue flat-bottom paper bags. Margaret Knight's bag machine was patented on July 11, 1871, as patent #116,842. I'm sure you're familiar with those brown paper grocery bags we use to get at the grocery stores before plastic. More importantly, those paper shopping bags which we all can buy at our favorite party supply store or local stationary store. Whoops! no wrapping paper available for that special Valentine's Day gift? I bet you have a stash of beautifully decorated heart bags you can quickly stuff a present in, attach a little note tag to and Wah La! you're set. Hey, don't forget to mentally thank Margaret Knight.

I first became acquainted with the "Mother of the Grocery Bag" a few years ago when I was researching the format for Months of Edible Celebrations. It was then I happened upon a teacher's classroom website of inventors and inventions that I became intrigued. It had never occurred to me to include inventions that were designed, patented and credited to children. I should have know better, after all, the Makin Bacon Dish was invented by eight year old Abbey (Abigail) M. Fleck. Why couldn't 12 year old Mattie (as her brothers called her) Knight have an invention to her credit. But wait, Mattie Knight has more than 90 inventions and at least 27 patents to her credit. This is no small bag of potatoes. Her first invention was not the machine attachment. Her first invention was a safety device for controlling shuttles in powered textile looms. As the story goes, Mattie's father died when she was just ten years old, and her older brothers Charlie and Jim were forced to seek work at Amoskeag Mills, a cotton factory in Manchester, New Hampshire. She would go every day to take them their lunch. By the time she was twelve, she also began working long thirteen hour days. One day, there was an accident at the textile mill. One of the fabric weaving looms stopped working properly, and Mattie witnessed a boy getting stabbed by a sharp steel-tipped shuttle that broke off a loom. He later died. Mattie was very upset and vowed to herself to invent a safety device which would prevent this deadly accident from ever happening again. Over the years, many men had tried to make the looms safer, but no one could make an idea work. Mattie was not deterred by the fact that she was young or, for that matter, that she was a girl. She never cared for things that other young girls cared for. Dolls had never charmed her. People called her a Tomboy anyway. She built sleds and kites for her brothers and enjoyed it. Determined, Margaret Knight spent days drawing sketches and building models. She finally invented a simple stop-motion safety device that held the shuttle in place and shut down the machine when it malfunctioned. That device soon became a standard part on all cotton looms and transformed the textile business forever.

Mattie never received a penny for her first invention. It didn't bother the little girl though. She was happy that she had invented something that would save lives. She didn't expect any notoriety however, such was not the case with her patent of the machine attachment she invented while working at the Columbia Paper Bag Company in Sprinfield, Massachusetts. Following the Civil War, (1868) Mattie had successfully designed her machine attachment and built a wooden model of the device. She then hired machinist Charles F. Annan, who was in the machine shop where Mattie's wooden model was being built, to build an iron version of her invention which she needed to submit with her patent application. The machinist attempted to patent a similar machine, claiming that a woman couldn't have the sense to understand such mechanical complexities. Fortunately, after filing a successful patent interference lawsuit and due to Mattie's testimony, careful diary entries, samples, and knowledge, Mattie defended her work against the man and the court ruled in her favor. Finally being acknowledged by her peers for her ingenuity, Margaret Knight went on to achieve great success. She invented or improved various heavy, industrial machinery, devices relating to rotary engines as well as a numbering machine, a window frame and sash, and a shoe manufacturing and cutting machine. She received patents for a dress and skirt shield, a clasp for robes, and a barbecue spit, several domestic machines, and a compound rotary engine (Dec. 30, 1902) for which she continued to patent improvements. She assigned her engine improvements to Knight-Davidson Motor Company, in New York. She was also Co-Founder of the Eastern Paper Bag Company in Hartford, Connecticut and from there received her royalties.

Paper bag machines today are producing 200 to 650 sacks per minute. End uses of S.O.S. bags include grocery and department stores, fast food restaurants, and bakeries. S.O.S. bags are also found in lunch rooms; on store shelves for consumer products, coffee, pet food, and charcoal; and at home for composting and yard waste.

I decided to include "Love" recipe from a cookbook in my personal cookbook collection titled The Brown Bag Cookbook by John Gould. Published in 1974, The Brown Bag Cookbook contains suggestions and recipes not only for sandwiches but for soups, meat pies, stews, desserts and drinks . It also focuses on the different types of "brown-baggers" including dieters, kids, and picnickers. Sound familiar? From the introduction:

It requires little acumen to state unhesitatingly that America in the skyrocketing seventies is becoming increasingly more expensive to live in. The cost of living charts soar to new heights each month. The economy has become a voracious beast, and many urbanites going out to eat are finding that they themselves are the ones being eaten. At present, for example, a New York luncheon with one drink can easily run $8.00; and large numbers of people have come to the conclusion that, when lunch becomes a $40.00 a week habit, it's time for rehabilitation. The natural result of this situation has been the emergence of the brown-bagger.
Love Soup
An esoteric etymology here: "love" which in tennis means "zero," comes from the French l'oeuf, meaning "the egg." Thus, egg soup.
3 tbs, butter 1/4 cup diced carrot 1/4 cup diced turnip 2 tbs. chopped onion 2 tbs. chopped celery1/2 tsp. salt 1 cup water 1 chicken bouillon cube 1 egg thyme, pepper
In a covered saucepan, melt the butter and cook the carrot, the turnip, the onion and the celery 15 minutes until tender. Add the salt, the water, and the bouillon cube, and bring to a rolling boil. Break the egg into the soup. It will spread apart immediately, forming bits of cooked egg. Season with thyme and pepper. Makes 1 large serving.
My Note: For a "flashback" into the days of brown bagging it and a delicious looking modern version (including the recipe) of those chocolate, creamy Devil Dogs we once carried in our lunch bags, take a quick trip over to Devil Dog Cake & Brown Bag Legends @ Culinary Types.

Margaret Knight never married. She passed away on October 12, 1914 at the age of 76. The home she rented, The Curry House, at 287 Hollis Street, Framingham, Massachusetts, still stands today. Her workshop at 110 High Street in Boston has become a landmark. Mattie's paper bag machine is now owned by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D. C., and her formal portrait hangs in the U. S. patent office in Washington, D.C. It is often said that Margaret Knight was the first woman awarded a United States patent however, she was not actually the first: the first female patent-holder was Mary Kies, who patented a weaving process in 1809. There is no doubt in my mind that Margaret Knight rightfully earned the nickname "Lady Edison." I'm already planning to buy my 5 year old grand-daughter a copy of the book Marvelous Mattie: How Margaret E. Knight Became an Inventor by Emily Arnold McCully. I am also looking into the book Margaret Knight, Girl Inventor by Marlene Targ Brill.


  • 1. Mattie @ Kids Hall of Fame
  • 2. Abigail M. Fleck (Inventor of the Week)
  • 3. Margaret E. Knight @ Paper Industry Hall of Fame
  • 4. The First Mill in America (informative website; the paper museum @ Georgia Tech)
  • 5. Earth Day Groceries Project


Frutlup said...

Hey thanks "Louise" for that tidbit of info. I'm sure your granddaughter would love to learn more about Mattie and some other facinating women inventors. I will keep that Brown Bag invention in my mind the next time I go shopping and wonder why I don't have my choice of "paper or plastic" anymore. I look forward to reading more of your blogs in the future. Thanks Again

~~Louise~~ said...

Thanks for visiting. The book is beautifully illustrated and quite inspiring. I can't wait to get it for her. My grandson is a little younger but I think he will enjoy it also. Visit anytime!