Who invented the amazing paper bag?

Luther Childs Crowell

Luther Childs Crowell

Envision, if you can, a technology that sharply improves the efficiency with which goods can be delivered to the consumer; that, in the view of one prominent economist, is the ”most effective innovation during the preceding decade in speeding up American retail sales”; that within only a few years of its introduction becomes a pervasive feature of American life.

Such a technology, according to the historian Daniel J. Boorstin, was the square-bottomed paper bag, invented circa 1870 by one Luther Childs Crowell. –Krugman, 1997, “Technology makes us richer; the paper-bag revolution”

It doesn’t take long in Wellfleet to be impressed with the local lore. There’s a lot to learn, about native peoples, Pilgrims, pirates, psychiatrists, and painters. We hear about Baker inaugurating the banana trade, Marconi sending the first trans-Atlantic wireless, and Crowell inventing the paper bag. There is a little truth in this lore. However, as with any item in history, there’s more to the story than often claimed.

Kraft paper bag

Kraft paper bag

One widely held idea, as evident in the quote above and some of the citations below, is that without Luther Childs Crowell of Wellfleet we’d never have the square-bottomed paper bag that makes shopping so convenient (and competes with the ubiquitous plastic ones). That’s an appealing story, especially for a small town that was in the doldrums during much of the industrial revolution.

Although he wasn’t born in Wellfleet, Crowell became a prominent, long-time resident. He’s considered the third most prolific American inventor of the 19th century. Among his inventions were an aerial machine (helicopter), a double supplement printing press, and a bottle-labeling machine. He’s a figure to remember.

Margaret E. Knight

Margaret E. Knight

Moreover, Crowell did play a role in the development of machines to make paper bags. He received one patent for this in 1867. Five years later he devised a machine to make square-bottomed paper bags, and later, the side-seam paper bag.

But the story is a bit more complicated than one inventor working alone to develop his brilliant idea. Paper bags were manufactured commercially in Bristol, England, starting in 1844. In 1852, Francis Wolle, of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania patented and built a  “Machine for Making Bags of Paper” (15 years before Crowell’s first bag patent). In 1869 Wolle and others founded the Union Paper Bag Machine Company. Many people consider Wolle to be “the” inventor. However, Wolle’s was an envelope-shaped bag, which was limited in terms of durability and interior space.

About then the plot thickens. In 1870, Margaret Knight designed a machine to cut, fold and paste paper bag bottoms. This meant that she could produce flat/square-bottomed paper bags, a great improvement on the earlier envelope-style bag design. Her work clearly preceded Crowell’s square-bottomed paper bag machine.

Knight became the first woman to achieve a U.S. patent in her own name, one of 89 in all. She held patents for improvements to automobile engines, for a window frame and sash, and for a shoe-sole-cutting machine. Almost immediately, she became the first woman to suffer patent infringement. Charles Annan filed a patent application making use of her design. Knight then filed a patent interference suit. In the trial, Annan argued that Knight could not have been the inventor. As a woman, she “could not possibly understand the mechanical complexities of the machine.” But Knight had full documentation, with drawings, paper patterns, diary entries, and more, demonstrating the complex and detailed work she had done over two years. She prevailed in court.

Patent model of Knight's machine for making paper bags, 1879

Patent model of Knight’s machine for making paper bags, 1879

A decade later, in 1883, Charles Stilwell was awarded a patent for making a “Square-Bottom Paper Bag w/ pleated sides.” His design was nicknamed “S.O.S.” (self-opening-sack), and provided the model for the mass-produced paper bags we know today. William Purvis and others received paper bag patents, with improvements such as the thumb cut to ease opening, serrated tops, and handles.

Crowell was an important player in this mix, but hardly the sole inventor. He actually acknowledged Knight as the true inventor, but declared that he had rights to make and sell the bag. Henry Petroski, who has one of the most thoroughly researched accounts of the paper bag development (see also Aidan O-Connor’s blog post), writes

The invention of the familiar square- or flat-bottomed paper bag–the “grocery bag”–is commonly but incorrectly attributed to Luther Childs Crowell, of Boston, Massachusetts, who in 1872 received a patent for an “Improvement in Paper-Bags.”

Note the use of the word, “improvement,” a sure sign that Crowell knew that he was helping the bag design to evolve, not inventing de novo. Crowell added several important features such as a bag top with unequal front and back sides. This made it easier to open the bag. He is thus rightly recognized as a major inventor, one who contributed to the design of paper bag we use today.

Stillwell patent, 1889

Stillwell patent, 1889

Knight’s contributions were for a long time under-appreciated, no doubt in part because she was a woman. But now, there are scholarly articles, museum exhibits, PBS shows (“History Detectives: Women inventors”) and children’s books about her: Margaret Knight: Girl inventor, In the bag!: Margaret Knight wraps it up, and Marvelous Mattie: How Margaret E. Knight became an inventor.

It’s impossible to identify the top paper bag inventor. Francis Wolle started on the path to mechanized production of the bags, but his envelope design had limited usefulness. Margaret Knight arguably made the biggest jump up from that with her machine for making flat-bottomed paper bags. But Stilwell’s significant addition of the accordion pleats on the sides made the bags much more useable, easier to store and access.

Luther Crowell, William Purvis, and others also made important contributions. A search for “paper bag” in the title of US patents yields 212 since 1920, including the most recent to Noe Yanez Castro, Guadalupe Acevedo, and Cipriano Hinojos for a “clampless bar mechanism” for “paper bag bottoming.”

Crowell’s work was important and still worth sharing. But the fuller story involving the first major US woman inventor, paper bags in different countries, patent battles, and the evolution of design for multiple purposes makes a truer and far more interesting account.

References

Replicating

This could help with a house move. All you need to do is

  1. Scan everything you own in the old house, including the car and piano;
  2. Save the scan files on your laptop;
  3. Move, remembering to bring the laptop;
  4. Print it all out again once you’re in the new house.

This would not only save on moving costs, but would also simplify the decision process regarding what’s worth moving.

If you needed to modify something, you’d need to do that at a Community Fab Lab, such as the one at the University of Illinois, which

is equipped with commercially available rapid prototyping manufacturing equipment, such as a laser cutter for carving out 2D and 3D structures; a precision milling machine for 3D molds or circuit boards and a larger one for making furniture or larger parts; rapid prototyping equipment for 3D printing with plastic; a sign cutter for creating graphics or plotting flexible electronic circuits; and electronic assembly tools.

Volunteer and youth in the Fab Lab (U Illinois I-STEM photo)

Volunteer and youth in the Fab Lab (U Illinois I-STEM photo)

Islamic Science and Technology Historical Museum

Yalikavak, Turkey

Our last stop in Istanbul was at the İstanbul Islâm Bilim ve Teknologi Tarihi Müzesi (Museum for the History of Science and Technology in Islam) in the Eminönü district. It’s a wonderful museum, displaying centuries of achievements in geography, navigation, astronomy, mathematics, music, optics, chemistry, chronometry, historiography, medicine, military, civil engineering, and other disciplines.

I was told in school that the period when most of these discoveries and creations occurred (9th-16th century CE) was called the Dark Ages, a time of fear, superstition, lack of progress, even regression from the Classical era. Then the Classical learning was miraculously rediscovered and expanded during the Renaissance. And of course, like many things I learned in school, it was partly true.

But the fact is that while great scientific and technical accomplishments were happening in the Islamic world, much of Christian Europe languished in these areas, not completely, but to a large extent in comparison. Islamic scholars maintained and extended the Classical learning, and incorporated additional ideas from Greek, Byzantine, Indian, Judaic, and other traditions. They not only advanced learning considerably, but did so by listening to and learning from other cultures.

Long before Roger Bacon, they articulated and promoted experimental science, and they wrote about inductive or scientific methods long before Francis Bacon. They studied the circulation of blood before William Harvey, and made many other medical advances. But the exhibits do not take a “who did it first?” approach; instead, they emphasize the continuity of learning, across time and across cultures.

The Ages were not Dark everywhere, and the Renaissance in Europe was not autonomous; it was dependent upon and grew organically from an Islamic culture that valued learning in all its forms.

The Museum displays fascinating astrolabes, glassware, maps, globes, medical instruments, ships, an elephant clock, and many other artifacts. I’ve never seen such an assemblage anywhere, and these are beautifully presented and explained with multilingual text and video. Scientists, mathematicians and other scholars, such as Muhammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī, Ibn Sena (Avicenna), Geber, Al-Jazari are featured.

That’s why it was both surprising and a bit depressing to see how few people came to the exhibits. I counted five total visitors during the entire time that we were there, Make that seven if I include Susan and me. There were about fifteen staff and guards. Of course, it’s been open only two years.

İstanbul offers tough competition for any museum. World Heritage sites like the Topkapi Palace nearby, the Sultanahmet Cami (Blue Mosque), and Hagia Sophia are just a few of those within easy walking distance, each offering jaw-dropping sights. But those also offer long lines and crowded viewing. It’s difficult to fully appreciate the Topkapi dagger while being shoved along in a crowd. The Museum for the History of Science and Technology in Islam offers a different and equally important view of Islamic culture, one that I suspect is not well known by many within or outside of Islam,

The Museum is housed in the Has Ahırlar (Imperial Stables) complex now in Gülhane Park. This area was once the outer garden for the Topkapı Palace during the days of the Ottoman Empire.

The working instruments and other objects were constructed by the Institute for the History of Arabic-Islamic Science at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University, Frankfurt, based on illustrations and descriptions in textual sources, and to some extent, on surviving original artifacts. There is a similar exhibit there under the direction of Fuat Sezgin. The İstanbul museum is a joint project of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, the Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey (TÜBİTAK), the Turkish Academy of Sciences (TÜBA), the İstanbul Metropolitan Municipality, and Goethe University.