Click here to skip to this page's main content.

New Feature: You can now embed Open Library books on your website!   Learn More
Last edited anonymously
April 21, 2011 | History

Charles B. Stilwell

1845 - 1919

Born in 1845, Stilwell grew up in Fremont. At the age of 17, he defied his parents’ wishes and went off to fight for the Union in the Civil War. At war’s end, he studied mechanical engineering, eventually settling in Watertown, New York where he worked for a paper manufacturer. It was in Watertown that Stilwell began thinking about improvements to the conventional paper bag – an odd-shaped tubular affair that had to be pasted together by hand. Its V-shaped bottom made it inconvenient for packing; clerks found it difficult to stack and store.

In 1883, Stilwell was awarded a patent for his invention – a machine that produced a square, flat-bottomed paper bag with pleated sides. He dubbed it the “S.O.S.” or Self-Opening Sack. It quickly became a favorite of grocers, who discovered that with a flick of the wrist, the “S.O.S.” popped open and stood alone on the counter while they packed in more items than they ever thought possible. Collapsible, the “S.O.S.” could be stacked and conveniently stored. Customers liked it too. One man thought it was the “greatest invention of all time!”

The following year, Stilwell moved to Philadelphia where he married and raised a family. Working for the Union Paper Bag Machine Company, he continued to improve his invention, while securing patents for another machine, one that printed on oil cloth, and a map for charting the course of the stars.

Charles Stilwell’s “S.O.S.” revolutionized the paper bag industry, but it really came into its own in the 1930s when freezers, refrigerators, supermarkets, and cars emerged as part of the American lifestyle. It was then that families began shopping and transporting in a single trip, enough food for an entire week. The “S.O.S.” became a staple of the industry and proved indispensable to shoppers, who found a million and one uses for the brown paper bag once they’d unloaded the groceries.

Stilwell’s invention did not bring him wealth, but it did provide him with a comfortable lifestyle – one that allowed him to travel to England and indulge his passion for William Shakespeare. He died in Wayne, Pennsylvania in 1919. In accordance with his wishes, his ashes were interred at Oakwood Cemetery in his boyhood home of Fremont.

1 work Add another?

Photo of Charles B. Stilwell


Links (outside Open Library)

No links yet. Add one?


Download catalog record: RDF / JSON
April 21, 2011 Edited by Edited without comment.
April 21, 2011 Edited by Added new photo
September 5, 2008 Edited by RenameBot fix author name
April 1, 2008 Created by an anonymous user initial import