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.”
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.
Some Articles Don’t Name the Woman Inventor…
However, you’ll also find newspaper reports that, sadly, neglect to name our female innovators.
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.”
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.
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.
Don’t you love the anecdote Bowles tells at the end of this article!
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.
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.
The drawing was accompanied by this text, in which I discovered that her first name was Nancy.
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.
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.
- In Search of Our Early American Ancestors’ Patents on Inventions
- Who Really Invented the Steamboat? Fitch, Rumsey or Fulton?
- The Wizard of Menlo Park, a.k.a. Inventor Thomas Edison