Author: Chris Fain
Black women improved on what they knew best while working in the home of their masters. Their inventions were precursors to better products we now use. These inventions were as simple as an ironing board to as complicated as an in-home surveillance system.
The Black woman has been overlooked for years. They were the last group of Americans to be granted the right to vote; they have been passed over for jobs because they were Black and a woman. The creativity and tenacity of these Black women are a source of inspiration for pursuing their dreams of freedom and rights as human beings.
Slaves suffered many prohibitions and injustices of all sorts. Most were forbidden to receive patents for their inventions. The white public would not purchase something because they were Black, or their masters took advantage of them and had the patent granted to them instead. Even though the Emancipation Proclamation had been passed years earlier, many Black women continued to be treated as slaves and lacked the freedom they needed to get financial credit for their inventions. We do not know a lot about most of these women except for their inventions.
A fire in 1836 in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office destroyed records of many ‘first’ patents. Patents were then identified by years after the fire in 1836, so it must be taken carefully when listed as the ‘first’ patent. While it is unknown if any Black women received a patent prior to the Civil War, there is irony in the fact that Black women obtained patents long before the 19th Amendment, giving them the right to vote or the advances in civil rights in the 1950s and 60s.
Martha Jones was the first Black woman granted a U.S. patent on May 5, 1868, for her corn husker. She was from Virginia but little is known of her other than her patented invention. Her Corn Husker, Sheller, was able to husk, shell, cut up, and separate husks from corn in one step. This represented a significant step forward in the automation of agricultural processes.
Mary Jones DeLeon, of Baltimore, was the second known Black woman inventor to be granted a U.S. patent for a cooking apparatus in 1873. Mary’s invention was a device for heating food by dry heat and steam. Her steam tables were a precursor to food buffets we see worldwide.
Judy W. Reed’s patent was granted on September 23,1884, for her dough kneader and roller invention. Her design mixed dough more evenly while keeping it covered and protected. During this time it was illegal for slaves to be educated; those found reading and writing could be severely beaten or punished by death. It is unknown if she could read or write because she signed the patent with an ‘x.’
Sarah E. Goode was the fourth known Black women to be granted a U.S. patent on July 14,1885. She was from Chicago and married a carpenter and stair builder. Possessing an entrepreneurial spirit, Sarah opened a furniture store. People’s homes were small for a lot of furniture, so she began working on sketches to find a solution. She invented an ingenious piece of furniture: a desk by day that unfolded into a full bed by night. It became very popular and was known as a Cabinet bed. Many other Black women were inspired by her to invent and receive patents. Sarah’s bed today is similar to a Hid-a-bed, a fold out couch, as well as influencing Murphy beds, which come out of a wall.
Dressmaker Sarah Boone was from North Carolina and received her patent in April 26, 1892, for the ironing board. It was a long narrow board with collapsible legs and a padded cover. It was to help iron sleeves and the bodice of women’s garments. Before her invention, people just used a plank of wood across chairs or tables. Once Sarah received a patent, the ironing board became very popular, especially for ironing sleeves. The sleeves could be inserted into the padded plank and could be flipped over to iron on both sides.
Ellen Eglin is known to have invented a mechanical clothes wringer. This, of course, was a precursor to the washing machine. In 1888 she sold her rights to a white agent for $18.00. She was so afraid no white women would buy or use it because it was invented by a woman of color. She made this decision rather than risk commercial failure. She had not patented the device so never received any money for her invention. A white person did take this and was granted a patent, but not to Eglin. This was common with many Black women inventors.
From New York City, Lyda Newman, a hairdresser for a private family, received a patent in November 15,1898, for an improved hairbrush. Some new brushes were designed for improved efficiency and hygiene. The brush had evenly spaced rows of bristles and open slots to guide debris away from the hair into a compartment. This compartment could be opened in the back with a touch of a button for cleaning. It was important to keep their hair clean to avoid scalp disease, which was common back then and could lead to hair loss. Lyda also fought for women’s right to vote and was one of the organizers of the African-American branch of the Woman Suffrage party.
This was a modest example of amazing Black women from the 19th century who continue to be a source of inspiration for today’s generation. Many have gone unrecognized or without registry in history. However, these Black female inventors who made it into history changed the workload at home for all Americans and helped revolutionize the world.