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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.


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."


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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Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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