Who Invented the Paper Shopping Bag?

By Violet Mabe

  • Overview

    You know and love the ubiquitous paper bag, but where did it come from? Who invented it? Read on and learn more about the paper bag's evolution.
  • Where It All Started

    The paper bag that you see in grocery stores today has its roots in 1852, when an entrepreneur named Francis Wolle patented a machine in the United States (and later in France and England) that made paper bags. The design was advanced over time until the envelope-type, flat, gusseted, glued paper sacks that are a familiar design today appeared in the 1870s. In 1869 Wolle and his brother, along with other partners, formed the United Paper Bag Company to market and sell the paper bags.
  • Improving the Concept

    Born in 1838, Margaret "Mattie" Knight was an accomplished inventor, holding 26 patents and credited with over 90 inventions, the first as early as the age of 12. Her most successful invention was the first square-bottom (also called "satchel bottom") paper bag machine. She was the first of a number of inventors to have success in the creation of a paper bag that was less flimsy than the flat envelope-style bags that Wolle's machines made. After working at the Columbia Paper Bag Company for 2 years following the Civil War, she created a wooden prototype machine and developed the design, and then had an iron version produced. However, it wasn't going to be easy--a man who had studied her machine design was trying to patent a suspiciously similar invention. Knight filed a lawsuit against the man, Charles Annan, for patent interference. His main argument in court was that since she was a woman she could not possibly understand the machine's complexity. But Knight was prepared, and at significant personal expense she presented a great deal of evidence to support her case and the court eventually ruled in her favor. Retailers, including the big department stores like Macy's and Lord & Taylor's, immediately saw the advantage of Knight's new bag design. In an age when it was common for store clerks to wrap each purchase in paper and twine, they realized that a sturdy, inexpensive paper sack would speed up the process and allow the clerks to move on to the next customer more quickly.

  • Further Advances

    In 1883 Chas Stilwell patented the "Self Opening Sack" or "S.O.S.," the square bottom bag with pleated sides that we see in grocery stores today. They were so superior to the envelope-type paper bags still in common use that demand went through the roof and continues to the present day.
  • Modernizing Manufacturing

    In 1890 a black inventor, William Purvis, patented a paper bag machine design that used suction-formers to assemble the bags. The patent was later sold to United Paper Bag Company. His design allowed the creation of square or satchel bottom type bags in greater volume and at greater speed.
  • 20th Century Bags

    In 1912, a grocer named Walter Deubner invented an improved paper bag that contained an integrated cord to increase the strength of the bag. His "Deubner Bags" were able to hold up to 75 pounds of groceries. The basic design of paper bags has not changed significantly in the past hundred years or so, and demand continues to be high for these convenient and sturdy paper shopping bags.
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