You probably haven't given much thought to brown paper bags, but I promise you'll never look at them the same way after reading Marvelous Mattie: How Margaret E. Knight Became an Inventor by Emily Arnold McCully. Margaret Knight was the first woman to be issued a U.S. patent for her invention of the flat-bottomed paper bag machine. And it was issued in 1871, a period when women's roles were narrow and prescribed.
Born into a poor family, Mattie was always curious as to how things worked. Sketching away in her notebook, she designed and built kites that flew higher and sleds that slid faster. She even made her mother a foot warmer. At the age of twelve, Mattie went to work in a mill. After a young girl was practically killed in front of her eyes, she realized how dangerous it was and invented a safety device that saved workers from injury and death.
Later, she went to work in a paper bag factory. She saw that the quality of the bags was poor (they didn't stand upright so the grocer had to use one hand to hold them open and they often split when filled with bulky items). So Mattie went to work on a design for a better bag. For two years she worked on her idea, sketching away and making paper bag cut-outs of her machine. She finally built a prototype out of wood. Just as she was getting ready to apply for a patent she heard that someone had stolen her idea. She went to court to prove it was her design, and she eventually won.
Marvelous Mattie is a good read aloud book for a first, second or third grader. The watercolor-and-ink drawings are a nice fit with the Industrial Age time period. Plus, an added bonus is that the book features some of her actual drawings from the paper bag patent.
A book like this will open up kids' eyes to all the inventions surrounding them on a day to day basis. Have them examine a paper bag closely so they can see everything that went into the design. Mattie's invention is still used today in making paper bags.
BookNosher Tidbits: Mattie was issued twenty-two patents in her lifetime and had over ninety original inventions. When she died, her obituary referred to her as "Lady Edison."
BookNosher Activities: Here's a fun website that features young inventors. Some examples include the earmuffs (invented by a 17 year old in 1873), the trampoline (invented by a 16 year old in 1930) and a quicker, healthier way to make bacon (invented by an 8 year old in 1993).