While Susan B. Anthony and friends were planning a demonstration for women’s rights at the nation’s 100th anniversary celebration, others were taking a different tack. Since the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia was, in essence, a trade fair promoting American know-how, Elizabeth Duane Gillespie, Benjamin Franklin’s granddaughter, wanted women included.
Met with resistance, Gillespie and others organized to create a separate pavilion showcasing female ingenuity. They raised a staggering $100,000 via concerts, bazaars and “Martha Washington tea parties,” where women in colonial dress sold 25 cent teacups commemorating the Boston Tea Party.
Harriet Hosmer, the best-known female artist of the time, contributed a sculpture. Engineer Emma Allison of Iowa came to operate the portable engine supplying steam power to the pavilion’s machinery, which included a printing press churning out a daily news sheet. Critics feared Allison would blow the place up by reading novels instead of monitoring the steam gauge.
To the chagrin of those women’s rights activists who hoped to expand the image of women’s capacities beyond the home, the majority of the inventions by the 85 women shown dealt with domestic affairs.
There were three stoves and two dishwashers, an iron with a heat-resistant handle, a bedstead with drawers and a self-draining flower stand. But there was also a woman’s face sculpted in butter by Caroline Brooks, a farmer’s wife. The relief sculpture was kept solid by constantly replaced ice in a tin frame underneath it. A New York woman had devised a travel bag that unfolded into a chair that could be used while traipsing the fairgrounds.
Perhaps the most brilliant invention was an array of interlocking hollow bricks made of a compound devised by Mary Nolan of St. Louis. Nolan, the daughter of Irish immigrants, sent a small model house to show in Philadelphia. Although it garnered much attention, Nolan had neglected to file a patent for her building materials and the invention was soon usurped by others.
Elizabeth Stiles had a happier story. This Vermont businesswoman invented a desk that, when folded, was only 18 inches deep, but would unfold into a 7 foot high piece of furniture with tiltable tables, pigeonholes, drawers and a wastebasket. Applying for a patent for the soon-to-be-successful “Stiles Desk,” its inventor, knowing her market, wrote that, should a lady wish one in her apartment, she could add mirrors.
Louise Bernikow is the author of seven books and numerous magazine articles. She travels to campuses and community groups with a lecture and slide show about activism called “The Shoulders We Stand On: Women as Agents of Change.” Her e-mail address is: firstname.lastname@example.org.