Click for the TGIF home page.
Your host Phil Ament Click to visit One Small Step Feature

Fascinating facts about the invention of the
Paper Bag
Francis Wolle in 1852.

In 1852 Francis Wolle patented in the United States, and later in France and England, a machine that he devised for making paper bags. It was the first of its kind, and covers the fundamental principle of the many similar machines that are now used.
Invention: paper bag machine in 1852
Definition: noun / machine to produce paper bags
Function: A bag made of paper for holding customer's purchases. Allowing customer to purchase and carry more products
Patent: 9,355 (US) issued October 26, 1852
Inventor: Francis Wolle
Criteria: First to invent. First to patent. Entrepreneur
Birth: December 17, 1817 in Jacobsburg, Pennsylvania
Death: 1893
Nationality: American
1852 Francis Wolle invents and patents paper bag machine.
Wolle and his brother and other paper bag makers found Union Paper Bag Machine Company.
1870 Margret Knight
invents a device to cut, fold and paste paper bag bottoms
1871 Charles Annon files patent application similar to Knight's design
1871 Knight, filed a patent interference suit against Annan.and the court rules in her favor
1872 132,890 (US) issued November 12, 1872 to Charles Annan for paper bag machine
1883 Charles Stilwell awarded patent for
making Square-Bottom Paper Bag w/ pleated sides
William Purvis awarded a patent for an improved paper bag machine
1891 Purvis sells patent license to Union Paper Bag Machine Co., now part of International Paper invention, history, inventor of, history of, who invented, invention of, fascinating facts.
The Story:
Francis Wolle (1817-1893) invented the paper bag- making machine in 1852 in the United States. Francis Wolle, botanist, born in Jacobsburg, near Nazareth, Pennsylvania, December 17, 1817, was educated in the Moravian parochial school in Bethlehem, and then became a clerk in his father's store. Subsequently he taught, first at Nazareth hall and then in the higher departments of the Moravian parochial school in Bethlehem. He became in 1857 vice-principal of the Moravian seminary for young ladies, and in 1861 principal of that institution, which place he held until 1881. He was ordained a clergyman in the Moravian church in 1861. In 1852 he patented in the United States, and later in France and England, a machine that he devised for making paper bags. It was the first of its kind, and covers the fundamental principle of the many similar machines that are now used. Further advancements during the 1870s included glued paper sacks and the gusset design, producing the types of paper bags used today.

In 1869, Wolle and his brother and other leading paper bag makers founded the Union Paper Bag Machine Company. Union Bag and Paper Co.'s decision to open a plant in Savannah was great news to depressed Savannah in 1935. The company, founded by paper bag machine inventor Francis Wolle, opened its $4 million plant with 500 workers the next year. Savannah citizens streamed through the plant on opening day to ooh and ahh at the production of a thousand feet of paper per minute. The plant is still in operation today and is owned by International Paper.

Square-Bottom Paper Bag

Margaret Knight (1838-1914) of Boston is credited with about 90 inventions and 22 patents. Her patents covered textile and shoe-making machinery, domestic devices, and even a "sleeve-valve" automobile engine. Knight's greatest success, however, was the first machine to make the square-bottomed paper bags. Others had been trying to develop such a machine for years, since the envelope-shaped bags then used were narrow and flimsy.

About two years after the Civil War she went to work for the Columbia Paper Bag Company in Springfield, Massachusetts. While in the factory, she invented a device to cut, fold and paste bag bottoms. Initially her employer complained about the time she spent on the device. When she suggested she might consider selling the rights to him if it worked, he gave in. After doing thousands of trial bags on a wooden machine, she had an iron model produced in Boston.

However, before she could place the patent application, she found a man named Charles Annan who had studied her machine while visiting the factory was attempting to a patent machine suspiciously similar to her own. Knight, 33 at the time, filed a patent interference suit against Annan. She played to win, spending $100 a day plus expenses for 16 days of depositions of herself and other key Boston witnesses. Annan claimed that because Knight was a woman she could not possibly understand the mechanical complexities of the machine. Due to her careful notes, diary entries, samples and expertise the court ruled in her favor.

The paper bag-folding machine was not Knight's only invention. Besides devices that improved her paper bag machine, her other inventions included a new window frame and sash design, a numbering machine, an automatic boring tool, and a spinning or sewing machine. The total number of her inventions is generally thought to be eighty-nine. They earned her a good deal of money, but when she died in 1914 her fortune had dwindled down to a mere $300.

Square-Bottom Paper Bag w/ pleated sides
On June 12, 1883 the U.S. Patent office issued #279,505 to Chas Stilwell a patent for a paper bag machine. After fighting for the Union in the Civil War, Charles Stilwell began to tinker with the idea of making a better paper bag. Paper bags already existed at this time, but they had many flaws. They had to be pasted together by hand; their V-shaped bottoms prevented them from standing on their own; and they were not easily collapsible or conveniently stackable. In the summer of 1883, Stilwell put into operation the first machine to produce paper bags. The bags had flat bottoms for standing up straight by themselves and pleated sides that made them easy to fold and stack. Dubbed the S.O.S., or Self-Opening Sack, it remains in widespread use today. With the birth of the American supermarket in the early 1930s, demand for Stilwell’s paper bags skyrocketed. Their versatility, strength, and low cost made them first a nationwide then a worldwide phenomenon.

Improved Machinery
The U.S. Patent office issued  # 434,461 to, black inventor, William Purvis on August 19, 1890 for a  paper-bag machine, the combination of two suction-formers having perforated surfaces, between which the ends of the paper tube are fed, and provided with two independent grooves arranged at different positions of the length of the formers and out of line with each other. He later licensed the paper bag invention to Union Paper Bag Co, of New York.


Invention of the Shopping Bag   from The Great Idea Finder
Invention of the Shopping Cart   from The Great Idea Finder


Girls Think of Everything: Stories of Ingenious Inventions by Women
by Catherine Thimmesh, Melissa Sweet (Ill) / Hardcover - 64 pages (2000) / Houghton Mifflin

A dozen women are profiled in this collection of short, anecdotal biographies demonstrating that necessity, ingenuity, and luck all play a part in successful inventions. The final section tells girls how to patent their inventions, and an informed bibliography will do just that.
The Kid Who Invented the Popsicle: And Other Surprising Stories About Inventions
by Don L. Wulffson / Paperback - 128 pages (1999) / Puffin
Brief factual stories about how various familiar things were invented, many by accident, from animal crackers to the zipper.
Panati’s Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things
by Charles Panati / Paperback - 480 pages Reissue edition (September 1989) / HarperCollins
Discover the fascinating stories behind the origins of over 500 everyday items, expressions and customs. 
What Can You Do with a Paper Bag?
by Judith Cressy / Paperback - 64 pages 1 Ed edition (June 2001)  / Chronicle Books
Armed with scissors, tape, and glue, it's easy to turn an ordinary paper bag into an extraordinary hat, wig, mask or crown. An engaging activity book for both home and classroom.
The Bag Book: Over 500 Great Uses and Reuses for Paper, Plastic and Other Bags to Organize and Enhance Your Life
by Vicki Lansky, Martha Campbell (Illustrator) / Paperback - 120 pages (2000) / Book Peddlers
Everyone accumulates them, but few have so many inventive ideas for bags as Vicki Lansky. Pinatas, kites, jump ropes, and hand puppets are just the beginning in this lively compendium of ways to get organized, make crafts, and clean up.


Spotlight on Women Inventors
Margaret Knight of Boston (1838-1914)
Paper Grocery Bag
Charles Stilwell, a Union soldier, is credited with the invention of the paper grocery bag. He produced the first machine-made folding paper bag and dubbed it the S.O.S. for "self-opening sack." From the Paper Bag Council.
Paper Bags
In 1869, Wolle and his brother and other leading makers founded the Union Paper Bag Machine Company. Today, near Savannah, Georgia, the Union Bag & Paper Corporation operates the
largest mill of its kind in the world.

Early Paper Bags
Although commercial paper bags were first manufactured in Bristol, England, in 1844, Francis Wolle invented the bag- making machine in 1852 in the United States.

Union Paper Bag Company
By 1938 the company's Savannah payroll was $2.2 million. Article By Mary Landers for the Savannah Morning News.

Original Patent Model
Patent model of Margaret Knight's machine for making paper bags. In 1979, when curators were seeking objects related to women inventors, Knight's model was a prize find.
Margaret E. Knight Biography
Shopping Bag Margaret E. “Mattie” Knight was born in 1838 in York Maine.
Great Moments in Plastic Bag History
1973 The first commercial system for manufacturing plastic grocery bags becomes operational

Paper or Plastic or . . .?
So, what is the answer, paper or plastic? NEITHER! Look into purchasing reusable bags or reusing your paper or plastic bags at the store. Reusing a bag meant for just one use has a big impact. From the U.S. EPA

Women Inventors
Martha Knight developed a machine to produce flat-bottomed paper bags, which was patented in 1870. She also appears to have been the first woman in the U.S. to fight and win a patent suit.

Presented to the Society of Women Engineers, Huntsville chapter, on March 4, 1999, for Women's History Month. by Susan Davis Herring .
Margaret Knight
Hall of History & Fame from the The Institution of Engineers of Ireland

The majority of books written credit Stilwell with the invention. The majority of the Web sites credit Knight as the inventor.


  • There are few things simpler and more functional than the paper bag.
  • Americans use them at the rate of 40 billion a year.
  • 1977 The plastic grocery bag is introduced to the supermarket industry as an alternative to paper sacks.
  • 1982 Kroger and Safeway start to replace traditional craft sacks with polyethylene "t-shirt" bags.
  • The Union Bag & Paper Corporation operates the largest mill, near Savannah, Georgia, of its kind in the world. Into it, each year, go over a million cords of long-fibered Southern pine. Out of it come 35,000,000 paper bags per day -- 9 billion per year 250 bags for each family in the United States.
Reference Sources in BOLD Type. This page revised January 10, 2006.

 Tim Berners-Lee's invention has revolutionized the world like nothing before.
Learn more


The invention of the Internet, should be classed with the greatest events of the 20th Century.
Learn more

  The Aero Sport All-Terrain Bed with Dual Power Pump is the perfect addition to any camping trip or weekend getaway.
Learn more...  
This book, is the perfect desktop reference for both the science novice and the technologically advanced reader alike.
Learn more
Click to visit FIRST
Click to visit Technology Catagories
Disclaimer   Author    inventors   inventions   timeline  category  games    a-navbarend.gif (873 bytes)
home  | idea history  |  idea showcase  |  special features  | resource center  | guest services  history articles  |  search   a-navbarend.gif (873 bytes)
Copyright © 1997 - 2007  The Great Idea Finder  All rights reserved.