by Barbara West
“Mary S.” of St. Louis, Missouri (c. 1851-1880) was an inventor who led a life of genius and poverty. Lacking finances and confidence, she sold the rights to her mechanical inventions to various male agents, for as little as $5 each. These men received 53 patents, and a great deal of wealth. Mary S. herself died impoverished at roughly age 30.
The tragic story of Mary S. spurred one of her acquaintances, Charlotte Smith, to seek justice and recognition for women inventors. A businesswoman and former intelligence agent for the Union Army during the Civil War, Smith was known for empathizing with the struggles of self-supporting women. She wrote about Mary S. in The Woman Inventor, a magazine she founded in 1891. She also pushed for the publication of an official List of Women Patentees. Feminists used the list to argue for women’s suffrage. Today, the list remains the major source of information on 19th-century female inventors. These women were patronizingly dubbed “Lady Edisons.”
Thanks to the list, we know that nearly 4,000 women received U.S. patents between 1809 and 1895—more than 5,000 if design patents are counted. One of the era’s most prolific female inventors was Margaret Knight of Boston (1838-1914). She is credited with about 90 inventions and 22 patents, the most famous of which was the first machine to make the square-bottomed paper bags that are still used in grocery stores today.
In the late 1890s, Smith moved to Boston, where 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. In 1907, she organized a Woman’s Board of Trade. After spending thousands of dollars on projects to help women become self-supporting, and years of direct charity to homeless and desperate women, Smith died alone in Boston in 1917. She was seventy-seven.
Here’s a cocktail with which to toast our industrious forebroads known as “Lady Edisons.”
2 ounces brandy
1 ounce Campari
1 ounce fresh lemon juice
Shake brandy, Campari and lemon juice with ice. Strain into a cocktail glass.