The Inventiveness of Women: Our Female Ancestor Inventors

Introduction: In this article, Mary Harrell-Sesniak searches old newspapers to learn about women inventors, whose inventions have played important roles throughout our nation’s history. Mary is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background.

Many history books give the impression that the important inventors of the past were white males. It’s unfortunate that less than adequate attention has been paid to women inventors who accomplished much as well.

To help remedy this, I searched in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives to learn more about our female ancestor inventors. This article will share some of the interesting inventors and inventions I discovered – as well as provide some search tips on how to find news about women inventors in the newspapers.

A Boon to All Shoppers: Grocery Bags

This newspaper article recognizes Martha Knight’s contribution to grocery shopping: she was “the inventor of a machine to manufacture paper bags.”

An article about Martha Knight, San Francisco Chronicle newspaper article 9 December 1872
San Francisco Chronicle (San Francisco, California), 9 December 1872, page 2

Sarah Breedlove Walker, aka Madam C. J. Walker (1867-1919)

There’s also Madam C. J. Walker, perhaps the most famous of African American female inventors, reputed to be the first woman self-made millionaire in U.S. history. Known for her hot comb and beauty preparations, you’ll find her mentioned in numerous newspaper articles. (Note: in these articles, the term “toilet” refers to grooming, not a commode.)

In 1913, you could learn the art of growing hair for a “small” sum of $25, which included an outfit valued at $12.50 and her hand-made steel comb.

An article about Madam C. J. Walker, Washington Bee newspaper article 9 August 1913
Washington Bee (Washington, D.C.), 9 August 1913, page 4

Some Articles Don’t Name the Woman Inventor…

However, you’ll also find newspaper reports that, sadly, neglect to name our female innovators.

An article about the invention of the freezer, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel newspaper article 5 May 1891
Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel (Milwaukee, Wisconsin), 5 May 1891, page 4

The good news is: there are techniques to help us find and celebrate the inventiveness of women, and even to put names to their products. (To learn the name of the woman who invented the ice cream freezer in 1843, please read to the end of this article.)

Search Using Appropriate Keywords

While researching this article, I went through a variety of searches to find women inventors and their inventions. Some of the keywords I used included: “female inventions”; “women inventors”; and “she invented.” After a few searches, I found a term no longer in vogue: the female equivalent of inventor, which is “inventress.”

An article about Mary Carpenter, People’s Gazette newspaper article 18 January 1873
People’s Gazette (East Saint Louis, Illinois), 18 January 1873, page 2

Obituaries Mention Inventions

Often an innovation will be mentioned in a death notice or obituary. For instance, Mrs. Macie King Fairley, of Raleigh, North Carolina, was such an avid fan of bridge that she invented a teaching device for the game, the bridge wheel, which provided correct bidding responses.

An obituary for Macie Fairley, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper article 4 February 1983
Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 4 February 1983

Newspaper Articles about Women as Inventors

Female lecturers, including Mrs. Ada C. Bowles, often gave talks on the ingenuity of women – and you can find newspaper articles reporting on these lectures. During one of Bowles’ talks in 1899, she pointed out that:

“Mary Kees is spoken of as the first woman in the country to take out a patent (1808), and this was for weaving straw with silk or thread.”

Bowles also observed that during times of war, women replaced the men on farms and in workshops, and were often inventive. Some accomplishments were camp beds, bandages and canteens. Beyond that, we can thank (or not) Mrs. Harriet Strong for the painful shape-altering corset.

An article about women inventors, New York Tribune newspaper article 19 June 1899
New York Tribune (New York, New York), 19 June 1899, page 5

Don’t you love the anecdote Bowles tells at the end of this article!

An article about women inventors, New York Tribune newspaper article 19 June 1899
New York Tribune (New York, New York), 19 June 1899, page 5

Reports about Patents

In this newspaper article, we see that Henrietta G. Batty, of Springfield, Massachusetts, received a patent for an improved spring egg cup.

An article about Henrietta Batty, Boston Traveler newspaper article 20 February 1860
Boston Traveler (Boston, Massachusetts), 20 February 1860, page 2

Want to Learn More? Try Using Google Patents

When you find an interesting invention, or even an unnamed inventress, you may learn more by querying Google Patents. By doing this, I was able to determine that the inventor of the ice cream freezer (known as an artificial freezer) was Nancy M. Johnson of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

The Google Patents search found this drawing of her freezer.

Illustration: drawing from the 1843 patent for Nancy M. Johnson of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, for her invention of a freezer.
Credit: Google Patents; U.S. Patent Office

The drawing was accompanied by this text, in which I discovered that her first name was Nancy.

The 1843 patent for Nancy M. Johnson of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, for her invention of a freezer
Credit: Google Patents; U.S. Patent Office

Missing Patents

If you can’t find a particular patent application, don’t give up on your search. It’s possible it is among the many missing ones. In December 1836, many patents were burned in a fire while in temporary storage. (See the Wikipedia page X-Patent.) Just keep searching, as it’s possible a newspaper article will describe it in further detail. It’s also possible that a patent was refiled at a later date, as was provided for by a law passed that year.

An article about the 1836 fire that destroyed many records from the U.S. Patent Office, Alexandria Gazette newspaper article 17 July 1837
Alexandria Gazette (Alexandria, Virginia), 17 July 1837, page 3

Test Your Knowledge

  • Did you know that a woman invented the board game Monopoly? I’m not going to tell you her name, but I will tell you she was an interesting person and that you can locate articles about her life in the GenealogyBank archives.
  • Ever heard of bloomerism? Although not a product, this concept was invented by a woman. Tip: search for “inventress of bloomerism.”
  • Do you ever think of a woman when you put on a hat? Perhaps you should learn her name.

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