The Champion Of Women Inventors
A century ago Charlotte Smith was spearheading a cause most people didn’t imagine existed
Every crusade has its Jerusalem, every crusader his or her moment when the trumpet call becomes irresistible. For Susan B. Anthony, the suffragist, it was being forbidden to speak at an Albany, New York, temperance rally in 1852. For the birth-control pioneer Margaret Sanger it was the death in her arms of an impoverished mother from a botched abortion in 1912. For Charlotte Smith it was the tragic story of a starving St. Louis inventor she met in the 1870s. Charlotte Smith became the champion of women inventors in America at a time when few people dreamed that women inventors held patents. She even founded a magazine for their benefit, The Woman Inventor —a century ago, in 1891.
Smith’s empathy for the struggles of self-supporting women—including women inventors—probably grew out of her own difficult experiences. She was born Charlotte Odium in upstate New York in 1840. Her father, Richard, died of cholera in the mid-1850s, leaving his wife, Catherine, with four children. He evidently had abandoned the family some years earlier, and Catherine supported Charlotte and her three younger brothers by keeping boarders—and, rumor had it, a “house of ill-fame.” The family headed south and west after Richard’s death; as Charlotte would later explain in a Civil War pension claim, she found that her mother was no longer “capable of attending to business,” and Charlotte became “the man of the house” while still in her teens.
By 1860 the family was in St. Louis; Charlotte was a milliner, and her mother had five boarders. Her brother David ran away from school there to enlist in the Union Army; Charlotte set out by boat and train to find him. Direct action would always be her way. When she saw a man annoying a young woman in the street, she would stride up and hit him with her umbrella. She once claimed she had broken five thousand umbrellas this way. Barred from a Senate Agriculture Committee hearing in 1893, she stayed until the doors opened again, then pushed in, told the departing senators, “It is warm, gentlemen. You had better remove your overcoats,” and proceeded to have her say. When she met desperate women who needed temporary lodgings, she would open her home to them or set up shelters with her own money.
Charlotte ingratiated herself with General Grant at Cairo, Illinois, by bringing intelligence through the lines. Still looking for her brother, she began running cargoes past Union river blockades into Confederate territory. Her operations, at first a cover for her search, became spectacularly profitable. When she later opened a dry-goods store in Mobile, Alabama, she was able to stock it with $20,000 worth of merchandise.
She found her brother in Paducah, Kentucky, and learning that he would soon be transferred to Memphis, Tennessee, she went ahead to find a house there and sent for their belongings from St. Louis. David was soon ordered away again, but the family stayed in Memphis. Charlotte and her mother supplied butter and milk to the federal hospital there, boarded recuperating Union officers, and did some nursing.
In April 1864 their house was destroyed to clear a firine path for gun emplacements. How they managed from then until the war’s end is unclear, but in about 1867 Charlotte married a merchant named Edward Smith. They lived in Mobile and then in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; in both cities Edward had a grocery and Charlotte ran her own business. In 1869 she left her husband. She must have had extreme provocation, for she was a Catholic and had two small children.
Again on the move, she subsequently opened a bookstore in Chicago—just three days before the great fire of 1871. Her store in ashes, she fled to St. Louis and wrote a book about the experience, publishing it only about a month after the disaster. For a work of less than a hundred pages, it had a grandiose title: The Past, Present and Future of the City of Chicago: Its Early History: An Authentic and Detailed Account of the Conflagration .
David Odium had disappeared during the war, and the other two brothers were now on their own. (One of them, Robert Odium, would achieve notoriety in 1885 by stunt-diving to his death from the Brooklyn Bridge.) Charlotte was still responsible for her mother, though, and for her own two sons as well. To support them she founded in 1872 a general-interest regional magazine, The Inland Monthly .
It was through The Inland Monthly , which published for six years, that she met the starving inventor Mary S. in 1875. As Smith later told the story, Mary S. came to her “in consequence of an article published in my Magazine on the practical occupations for women and their position as inventors at that period.” A handsome, intelligent, sad-looking woman of twenty-four, Mary S. was the daughter of a talented but feckless inventor. A drunkard, he was routinely cheated of his inventions, and his family was destitute. His wife had died, and Mary was struggling to live on three dollars a week while living in an attic room.
Mary had inherited her father’s inventive skill, but though not a drinker she was just as crippled by lack of confidence. Smith wrote that Mary S. had “patented in a lawyer’s name a valuable invention, which has since proved a grand financial success” and had received only five dollars for it. She had feared “that if it had been known the invention of a woman, it would have been regarded as a failure.”
By 1880 Mary S. was dead. In her short life she had completed thirtyseven inventions begun by her father and sixteen others of her own. Had she patented all fifty-three of them, she would have been the most prolific woman patentee of the century. In 1891 Charlotte Smith would write in the first issue of her short-lived journal The Woman Inventor that Mary S. had “furnished the brains for man to create wealth, when he himself had not the genius to invent, but only the craftiness and cunning to take away the products of that woman’s inventive labor. … She implored me before she died to see that in the future justice was done to women inventors.”
In fact, Mary S. represents only one extreme among the thousands of nineteenth-century American women inventors. At the other extreme, a few made a great deal of money. Most fell somewhere in between.
Another inventor who neither patented nor profited from her inventions was Ellen Eglin, a black woman who worked in Washington, D.C., in the 1880s and early 1890s both as a domestic servant and as a federal clerk. According to Charlotte Smith, in The Woman Inventor , Eglin invented a clothes wringer that became a great financial success, but she sold the patent for $18, explaining, “You know I am black and if it was known that a Negro woman patented this invention, white ladies would not buy the wringer.”
One of the rare women who made fortunes from their inventions was Maria Beasley, of Philadelphia, whose barrel-hooping machine brought her $20,000 a year in a time when workers like Mary S. made $3 a week. She won at least fifteen patents between 1878 and 1898, for several barrel-making improvements plus a startling variety of other things, including life rafts, a foot warmer, a steam generator, and an anti-derailment device for railroads. Little is known about her today; she presumably ran the Beasley Standard Barrel Manufacturing Company listed in the Philadelphia Business Directory in 1885.
Another woman whose inventions—and enterprise in exploiting them—made her rich was Helen Augusta Blanchard (1840-1922), inventor of zigzag sewing and the machine to do it. The daughter of a wealthy Maine shipowner, she lived an unremarkable life until her father lost his fortune in 1871, whereupon she vowed to recoup it. She patented her first sewing machine two years later. According to Frances Willard and Mary Livermore in their 1893 reference work American Women , “among her numerous inventions are the Blanchard over-seaming machine, the machine for simultaneous sewing and trimming on knitted fabrics, and the crocheting and sewing machine, all of which are in use by immense manufactories and are ranked among the most remarkable mechanical contrivances of the age.” By 1876 she had founded the Blanchard Over-Seam Company, of Philadelphia, and had become known for using her riches to assist struggling women.
Still another big success was Martha Coston, who, widowed at twenty-one with three young children, completed a night-signaling invention begun by her late husband, Benjamin Coston, a Navy lieutenant, and obtained patent protection for it in 1859. She went on to create and patent improvements in the system, and it was eventually adopted by most of the navies of the world. In her 1886 autobiographytitled, unsurprisingly, A Signal Success —she claims she was never justly compensated for her invention, but the United States Congress evidently paid her $20,000 for her first patent during the Civil War, and she made money negotiating rights with foreign governments as well. She established the Coston Supply Company to manufacture her signals, and it was still in business in the 1970s.
Many more women made substantial sums from their inventions in the nineteenth century. Mary Walton, of New York, made $10,000 outright plus royalties on her patent for a system for quieting elevated railways; Allie J. Hambel, of Chicago, went home from the 1893 Columbian Exposition with 60,000 orders for her Tivolia food mixer; an inventor of a glove buttoner was making $5,000 a year in royalties in 1899; and a San Francisco inventor of a baby-carriage improvement sold her 1893 patent for $14,000.
Most nineteenthcentury women inventors, however, were neither rich nor poor and invented only occasionally. Nobody knows how many they were, for no one knows how many women left their inventions unpatented. What we do know is that altogether nearly 4,000 women got U.S. patents between 1809 and 1895—more than 5,000 if design patents are counted. A fair cross section of their number can be seen among the eighty-odd women who exhibited inventions in the Women’s Pavilion at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, in 1876.
There were a few outstanding successes among the Centennial group, such as Martha Coston and Ellen Demorest, a well-known inventor, entrepreneur, and arbiter of fashion, but most of them were women struggling to support themselves—some single, some married, and some widowed- and a few were professional women who invented things connected with their jobs. Only two or three in the group had independent incomes, and only one was arguably a professional inventor.
Among the self-supporting single women represented at the fair was Mary Nolan, of St. Louis, who had briefly been Charlotte Smith’s partner in The Inland Monthly . Her invention, which won a Centennial Award, was a new type of fireproof building block she called Nolanum. Also at the fair, Harriet Chapman, a Philadelphia corset maker supporting an invalid husband, had at least two patents for corsets; Hannah Suplee, the wife of a sewing-machine salesman “not much interested in business,” had invented an easily threaded sewing-machine needle; Mary Florence Potts, whose husband had gone bankrupt, had invented the first sad-iron with a cool handle. Her image appeared on trade cards, and her irons were known by her name. Among the women at the fair who invented in connection with their careers were Caroline Brooks, a sculptor who devised a way to produce lubricated molds in plaster; Elizabeth J. French, a physician who developed electrotherapeutic devices; and Catherine Griswold, a Connecticut corset maker who held thirty patents, the most of any woman in America at the time.
Women who actually considered themselves professional inventors were rare. At the Women’s Pavilion they were probably represented only by Mary Carpenter, of San Francisco, Buffalo, and New York City. She took out at least thirteen patents between 1862 and 1894, for inventions as diverse as a self-threading and selfsetting sewing-machine needle, an improved mop wringer, a barrel-painting machine, a grated shovel, and a mosquito trap.
Another prominent woman who clearly thought of herself as an inventor was Margaret Knight (1838-1914). She began life in poverty, often sold inventions to her employers for quick cash, and left an estate of only $275 when she died. She did see wealth and fame, however; her most famous patent, for the machine that made possible square-bottom paper bags, earned her tens of thousands of dollars in royalties and a decoration by Queen Victoria in 1871. Later in life she created shoe-cutting machines and rotary engines to drive production processes. Her first known invention was a safety device for the textile industry when she was twelve. Her obituaries praised her as a female Edison.
If Mary S., shivering in her attic room, represents an extreme case, women inventors nonetheless undeniably suffered special disadvantages and had special needs by virtue of their sex, and it was these burdens that Charlotte Smith set out to address. Her mission was proclaimed in the two issues of her periodical The Woman Inventor , published in April and June 1891 to coincide with the celebration in Washington of the centennial of the U.S. Patent Office.
As Smith saw it, the first need of women inventors was information. When she arrived in Washington in 1879, four years after meeting Mary S., she discovered that no one knew how many patents women had received. She resolved that the Patent Office must provide a list of women patentees and pursued the idea with three commissioners in turn. The usual excuse, which she heard seventeen times from one commissioner, was a shortage of clerical time. Finally she appeared before Congress and won the necessary funds. The list appeared in 1888. Four clerks had spent about ten days compiling it.
Meanwhile, in 1882 Smith had founded a women’s labor union—the Women’s National Industrial League. It began with female federal clerks and broadened to accept all women who worked for wages and to operate as something like a modern PAC. In its behalf Smith ran a periodical called The Working Woman from 1886 to 1892, and she lobbied Congress and state legislatures to open more trades to and support higher wages for women. The WNIL survived until after 1900, but it lost momentum after Smith left Washington in 1894.
As she began planning to publish The Woman Inventor , Smith drew on the list of patentees for subjects for articles. At the same time, feminists used the list to argue for women’s suffrage. Even today, despite its errors and omissions, the list remains the major source of information on nineteenthcentury women’s contributions to technology, and it is Charlotte Smith’s most lasting accomplishment.
The Woman Inventor survived for just two issues, each a four-page sheet in newspaper form. Smith got out the first one in time to distribute it to the attendees at the Patent Office centennial celebration in April 1891. She had invited women to write to her about their problems with inventing and with the patent process, and she published some of their letters in The Woman Inventor .
Fifty-year-old Eliza Wood, a farmer’s wife in Easton, New York, wrote in, “I have never known anything but hard work. My first patent was a Mop Pail. I began improving it, and came near getting it stolen. I am poor, have not the money to interest capital in it as it stands today.” Emma Watrous, of Homer, New York, wrote, “I have two devices patented and several more I wanted patented. I thought when they were patented I should be all right, but I cannot even get a good sample manufactured, and have no means for experimenting.”
Some of the correspondents in the second issue say the first one rescued them from despair. Maria Littleton says, “I have invented a number of very useful articles, but have had but one of them patented, and that has been infringed on. I became discouraged, but since reading your paper think I will battle on.”
To provide yet another form of encouragement, Charlotte Smith founded in 1891 the Woman Inventors Mutual Aid and Protective Association of the United States of America. The association had plans to hire attorneys, draftsmen, and model makers; the five-dollar annual membership fee would entitle a woman to one copy of The Woman Inventor , free information on patenting procedures, and access to low-cost model-making and drafting services. For an “approved” invention the association would advance a member’s Patent Office fees. Best of all, the association would negotiate the sale of members’ patents, arrange for manufacturing, and even market an invention, all for a “moderate royalty.” There were plans for a Washington office, where women’s patent models would be exhibited and free advice given to members. Unfortunately for women inventors, however, so far as we know the association flickered briefly and disappeared.
Smith campaigned tirelessly for technical training for women, proposing that Congress endow on their behalf a National Industrial Training Institute. She called for lower Patent Office fees for women and for a permanent display at the Patent Office honoring women’s inventions. When the men who had gathered for the Patent Office centennial organized an inventors’ association, she persuaded the group to admit women.
In 1892 she helped get the Patent Office to update its list of women inventors. Earlier she had tried to become part of a group planning the Women’s Building at the Chicago World’s Fair; her circle fell out with the more conservative organizers, and she ultimately played little part. As the 189Os wore on Smith shifted her base of operations to Boston. She founded a Women’s Rescue League to provide shelter, food, and training for poor working girls, homeless or battered women, and prostitutes wanting to leave the trade. Whether or not her ideas actually became more extreme in her last years, the press focused on a few of the most radical- a proposed law compelling men to marry so that more women could share men’s incomes, an attack on the government for erecting so many statues of famous men and so few of accomplished women, and a tax in Massachusetts on bachelors. In 1907 she organized a Woman’s Board of Trade in Boston.
Nothing like The Woman Inventor has ever been seen again since its brief existence a century ago. Today Charlotte Smith is forgotten except for an occasional mention in journalism and labor histories. The very least that can be said about her is that in the best sense her reach exceeded her grasp. In a burst of creative zeal around the time of the Patent Office centennial she proposed a raft of solutions for the needs and problems of women inventors, solutions many of which might still seem ahead of their times today.
After spending uncounted thousands of dollars on her crusades and projects to help women become selfsupporting, and years of direct charity to homeless and desperate women, Charlotte Smith died alone in Boston in 1917. She was seventy-seven and in the end was visited only by her priest. She lies today in an unmarked grave provided by the Catholic church.