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Women's History Month

American Women Inventors Go Public:

The Centennial Exhibition of 1876

Women have invented since the dawn of civilization. In fact, many anthropologists believe that women made civilization possible, by inventing the basics of clothing, housekeeping, and agriculture. In the modern era, women have had more difficulty gaining credit for their inventions than they have had inventing.

The classic example is Catherine Littlefield Greene of Georgia (1755-1814). She is unknown to the general public, but experts on invention agree that Eli Whitney could not have developed the cotton gin---the quintessential American invention---without Greene's advice. In fact, some believe that Whitney stole the credit for what was essentially Greene's invention.

As the U.S. approached its Centennial celebration, scheduled for Philadelphia in 1876, women suffragists and women inventors pooled their efforts to counteract the obscurity of women's abilities and achievements. Under the direction of Elizabeth Gillespie, the granddaughter of Benjamin Franklin, an exclusive "Woman's Pavilion" was included in the Centennial celebration. The Woman's Pavilion exhibits proved to the nation the many and various contributions of women to American labor and creativity.

The Pavilion housed 85 exhibits, with 59 women patentees represented. More than half of the inventions displayed dealt with clothing and domestic devices. For example, Mary Potts' "sad irons" (flat irons with interchangeable parts) won national recognition. But there were also items related to art, medicine, construction and machinery.

Among the exhibits were Martha Coston's maritime signal flares. Mary Nolan of St. Louis won an award for her "Nolanum" construction blocks: hollow, interlocking bricks that were fire-proof, pest-proof, non-absorbent, insulating, and requiring neither paint nor wallpaper covering. Elizabeth Stiles of Vermont won the Exhibition's first prize for overall invention for her "Stiles Desk." This was a two-person, multi-purpose reading, writing and storage unit complete with display stands, inkpots, and wastebasket, that when folded shut was only 18" deep---perfect for libraries, offices, and apartments.

Two exhibitors showed that creativity could cross the border between science and art. The sculptress Harriet Hosmer of Boston, who eventually gained 5 patents for mechanical devices and a type of faux marble, contributed a statue. Caroline Brooks of Arkansas created a sensation with "Iolanthe Dreaming," a sculpture made entirely of butter. Brooks was using the sculpture to demonstrate a process for making plaster casts for which she won a patent the next year.

The Woman's Pavilion exhibition at the Centennial provided the first national boost in pride, encouragement and solidarity among women inventors of the U.S. .

For more information on the Centennial Exhibition, see Chapter 4 of Feminine Ingenuity, by Anne L. Macdonald. For Catherine Greene and the cotton gin, see the Introduction to the same book, or Appendix A-2 of Mothers and Daughters of Invention, by Autumn Stanley.

[March 1997]

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