“Would you like paper or plastic?” We’ve all been asked that question many times (although much less frequently of late). For more than a hundred years, our choice for hauling groceries was the durable, inexpensive brown paper bag. Once we’d unloaded our purchases, we found all sorts of second and third uses for that square-bottomed sack. From trash to lunches, schoolbooks, or clothes for an overnight stay, the versatile brown paper bag did it all – and we never gave it much thought. But one man did - Charles B. Stilwell, the son of one of Sandusky County’s most prominent pioneer physicians.
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.