Sit-Flat Paper Bags

Sure, sit-flat paper bags are not the condensing steam engine, the telegraph, pneumatic tools, or the dynamo generator but they represent something new: a woman entrepreneur.

After realizing the hassle of bags that would not stand Margaret Knight set out to create a machine for a bag with a flat bottom. She worked with three machinists.

The third machinist, Charles Anan, stole and patented the idea. Anan had asked to see what she was working on and outright ripped it off. During litigation the other machinists testified, Knight showed her notes, and Anan could not entirely explain his patent. Knight won and was awarded her patent in 1871.

She built a large bag business and spent her life making various other innovations, never marrying.

She worked hard: “At the age of seventy, [Knight] is working twenty hours a day on her 89th innovation,” reported the New York Times on Oct. 19, 1913. She died in 1914 with an estate worth $275.05.

Grocery Store Chain / Mass Retailer

The Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company (A&P) showed that relying on massive scale could push down prices while running a company profitably.

Relying on low prices A&P expanded rapidly. Early A&P stores were full-service. Shoppers, who typically arrived on foot to the neighborhood stores, would tell grocers what they wanted, and the grocers would remove it from shelves or a limited cold storage area. A&P pioneered the use of private label goods, purchasing entire shiploads of tea or trainloads of fruit, packaging the goods into their own containers, and selling it at their stores.

During WWI A&P sputtered as the US government commandeered food and transport dealing a setback but, after the war, A&P continued to expand. By 1930 A&P was the world’s largest retailer. At one point there were just under 16,000 stores.

In 1946, the US Dept. of Justice used anti-collusion and market protection rules to convict the company of selling food too cheaply. By the 1950’s others started to open more modern and larger stores (A&P evolved into what today we call grocery stores later in its lifecycle).

Over time, A&P failed to keep pace. Their “professional” grocers did not like the self-serve enormous supermarkets. They had a large number of small stores but, over time, lower volume than the larger retailers.

After a long decline and two bankruptcies all stores were shuttered Dec. 1, 2015. By 2018 even the old A&P website is defunct.

While A&P thrived, they did so by continually recreating their stores.