Thursday, February 2, 2023

Margaret Knight: The Most Famous 19th Century Woman Inventor

Blogger: Amber Lemus

Newspaper article about Margaret Knight
Public Domain.

Continuing from our post on shopping bags last month, today we explore the fascinating and inspiring life of female inventor, Margaret Knight. February happens to be her birth month also!

Young girl working in a cotton mill
Public Domain

"Mattie" was born to Hannah Teal and James Knight on February 14, 1838 in York, Maine. She was known as a very odd little girl, because instead of dolls she preferred woodworking tools. Her father died when she was very young, so she and her two brothers were raised by her widowed mother. Life was very hard for them, and she didn't receive much education, since she had to leave school as soon as she was old enough to start working in the cotton mill with her brothers.

Mattie's first invention was spurred by yet another traumatic event. At age twelve, she was working in the cotton mill when a nearby machine malfunctioned, and sent a steel-tipped shuttle shooting out of the machine and into a young boy. Terrorized by the event, she immediately set to work and conceived a safety device to shut off the machine if something went wrong. Her device was developed and put into use, supposedly by mills all over the country. However she would never see a dime from that invention.

Before long, Mattie developed health conditions that prevented her from continuing to work in the cotton mill. She tried many different things to earn a living, including home repair, engraving and furniture upholstery. In 1867, near age thirty, Mattie moved to Springfield, Massachusetts and began working in a paper bag factory. The bags they made were envelope style, but they had several issues that made them less functional. However, flat-bottomed bags were more expensive to produce, since they had to be made by hand. Mattie's mind set to work on that problem.

About a year later, in 1868, Mattie invented a machine that cut, folded, and glued paper to form flat-bottomed brown paper bags, much like the ones we know today. This machine would greatly increase the speed of production for these bags, allowing a mass manufacturing of the more efficient design.
Another of Knight's Patents for a rotary engine.
Public Domain

This time, Mattie knew the value of what she had, and she intended to go about it in a way that would allow her to patent the machine and reap the rewards of her labor. She made her own wooden prototype, but she needed a working iron model in order to apply for a patent. So she went to a machine shop to get it built. But when Mattie went to patent her design, she discovered that someone else had already done so.

Charles Annan was either working at the shop to build the prototype, or was near enough to see the design as it was in the making, and he stole the design and filed his own patent. During this point in history, patents hadn't been awarded to women, at least not openly. Women would disguise their names by only using initials so their names were not perceived as female. But this was something Mattie was willing to fight for. She took Annan to court, shelling out over $100/day in legal fees (something around $2,143 today) to win back her patent. Annan argued that his invention was different than Mattie's, and that she never developed a fully functional machine. He even went so far as to state that "she could not possibly understand the mechanical complexities of the machine". Most consider this comment to stem from his prejudice against women, although some debate that point. Either way, Mattie had to bring witnesses, and copious amounts of evidence to prove the invention was actually hers. After a sixteen day hearing, which would have cost her over $1600 (over $34,000 in today's market.) she won the case and her patent was awarded in 1871.

From there, Mattie was able to sustain herself from the royalties of her patents. She continued to invent and registered more than 80 patents during her lifetime. Later in life, as she reflected on her accomplishments she said, "I'm only sorry I couldn't have had as good a chance as a boy, and have been put to my trade regularly." She is one of the most saluted women in the suffrage movement, because she demonstrated women's cognitive abilities and succeeded in a predominately male field.

Some articles have claimed that she was the first woman to receive a U.S. Patent, however that doesn't seem to hold up to fact checking.

Regardless, Margaret E. Knight is an inspiring person who despite countless trials, setbacks, and even having to fight for a place in the world, rose above it all to succeed at what she loved.

Today, I'd love to know what that would be for you. If you could rise above it all and succeed in a field, what field would that be? Leave me a comment below the blog post and let me know.

Two-time winner of the Christian Indie Award for historical fiction, Amber Lemus inspires hearts through enthralling tales She has a passion for travel, history, books and her Savior. This combination results in what her readers call "historical fiction at its finest".

She lives near the Ozarks in her "casita" with her prince charming. Between enjoying life as a boy mom, and spinning stories out of soap bubbles, Amber loves to connect with readers and hang out on Goodreads with other bookish peoples.

Amber is a proud member of the American Christian Fiction Writers Association. Visit her online at and download a FREE story by subscribing to her Newsletter!


  1. Thank you for the day's post. It was interesting on so many levels. How I admire these women who decided not to take "no" for an answer, or who stood up when wronged. I myself have had no ambitions so great that I felt constrained by my gender.

    1. Thanks for stopping by today, Connie! I'm inspired by these women as well.

  2. Strange coincidence today. I had never heard of Margaret Knight and was fascinated by your post about her. Then we watched Jeopardy and one of the questions was about the woman who made shopping easier with cut and folded flat bottom paper bags and she was the answer. I was so excited because I had read your blog and knew the answer. :) Amazing what we can learn from history.