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Who invented the paper bag?

Posted by Josh Rothman  November 8, 2010 02:40 PM

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Who invented the folding paper bag? Over at the Museum of Modern Art's Inside/Out blog, Aidan O'Connor, a curator of design at the museum, unfolds its history, in response to a reporter who wrote in to question the attribution of a paper bag displayed as part of the museum's kitchen design exhibit.

Stillwell-patent-1889.jpg

MoMA had attributed the paper bag to Charles Stilwell, who is remembered here-and-there as the "inventor of the self-opening sack." It turns out, however, that Stillwell's method of producing the bags drew heavily upon a previous method invented and patented by Margaret Knight. Knight worked at the Columbia Paper Bag Company here in Springfield, MA, and, O'Connor writes, is "believed to be the first woman to achieve a U.S. patent."

Knight-patent-18713.jpg

The whole story is like a time-warp back to industrial-revolution America: the main thing with paper bags, of course, was that they could be produced at unbelievable speed - as many as 3,600 an hour. One man, George West, was even considered the "Paper Bag King." But Aidan's short history also reveals some of the reasoning process behind the attribution of authorship to everyday objects. Having looked into it, the museum has revised its attribution: the label next to the paper bag in MoMA's display now credits both Stilwell and Knight as co-inventors.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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