Who Invented the Brown Paper Bag?

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Can you imagine what it was like before the invention of the brown paper bag? We have certainly come a long way from having to balance grocery shopping along a crowded street to being able to buy brown paper bags online. Whoever came up with this convenient innovation is worth recognizing.

Well, guess what, the history of the brown paper bag is a long one and not just one person can take all the credit for the invention. When you buy brown paper bags online, you realize what you receive has a variety of features like the ability to fold, the square bottom that can carry much more and convenient handles. These can all be attributed to different people who came up with the ideas over a long time.

The Beginning of the Paper bag

Before the paper bags, people had to make do with sacks made from tree backs. These jute and burlap bags were expensive to manufacture and took a lot of time. When you get one, you had to keep it well because they were meant to be reused.

Slightly over 50 years after the discovery of paper, an inventor called Francis Wolle made the first machine to turn paper into bags. These bags were shaped more like large envelopes but they were easier to mass-produce and they got the job done. This was in 1852. Although the bags his machine-made were mainly used for smaller objects, it had switched on a light bulb of innovation. It was not long before it was introduced.

The Invention of Square Bottom Paper Bags

1871 saw a big addition to the paper bag. Margaret Knight changed what was more of an envelope into what we recognize today as the brown paper bag. An employee of Columbia Paper Bag Company, she added a square bottom to the envelope bag. This invention revolutionized the way groceries were carried. People loved the square bottom bag because it could carry more items. The reception of her invention was so good that she was able to go into business on her own designing bags for the company she formed, Eastern Paper Bag Company. Most people credit Margaret Knight as the inventor of the modern paper bag, but there is still someone else to recognize.

The Pleated Paper Bag

Don’t you appreciate how efficient the pleats on paper bags are? You can store them much easier and package many of them in boxes without distorting them. Well, that was the work of another inventor. Charles Stillwell, an engineer by trade came up with what he called S.O.S bag. That is a self-opening bag. It may have been a minor addition to the bag, but it also contributed a great deal to the way shopping bags are designed today.


Even with the square bottom and pleats, the paper bag was not quite finished. Maybe many people did not notice until it was invented so they carried on with the bag even if it was difficult to carry around. In 1912, Walter Deubener made a new addition to the paper bag. He added holes to the side and laced string through the holes. With the string handles, carrying the bag became easier but that was not all, the strings ran down to the bottom of the bag to reinforce the bottom. This made it possible to carry heavier groceries in the bag. These bags were also convenient for the local cash and carry restaurants since food can be a bit heavy, putting it in bags with string at the bottom could ensure the bag did not fall apart.

Some people say Walter did not come up with the idea on his own. Lydia Duebener is said to be a contributor to the design as well.

The Modern Paper bag

While the modern paper bag maintains the different additions by the inventors mentioned above, we can see certain features that vary depending on the manufacturer. The way the strings are attached for example may vary and not all brown paper bags are brown these days. Some may have colors added to them like black stripes or brand colors for a particular company.

Most modern paper bags are made from Kraft paper which was the brainchild of a German Chemist called Carl Dahl. Kraft is composed of wood chips that are heated, mixed with solid pulp, washed, bleached, and then turned into paper that has the brown color. Maybe it would be right to add Carl Dahl to the list as well.

The credit for designing the paper bag cannot be given to a single inventor since they all added an important feature to what we now enjoy using whenever we carry our groceries or items from the shop. Maybe in a few more years, there will be another name added to the list of inventors.