In the 1800s, American women could not vote and many of them could not profit from their own the intellectual property, yet that sad reality didn’t stop the seven women highlighted below from creating 218 inventions, of which 143 were patented.
In 1888, feminist Charlotte Smith lobbied the U.S. Patent Office to compile a list of female patent holders. According to Autumn Stanley, author of Mothers and Daughters of Invention, this list is, “… one of the few useful sources on women inventors in the United States.”
The list Ms. Smith commissioned, though historical invaluable, reflects significant undercounting of female inventors. For instance, a close review of Patent Office filings in 1876 includes 17.5% more applications from female inventors than is shown in Ms. Smith’s list. It seems the men engaged to tally the number of female inventors relied heavily on the patents’ descriptions, resulting in counting patents which covered domestic innovations (cleaning, childrearing, cooking, etc.) and excluding mechanical and engineering oriented patents.
In addition, before the passage of the Married Women’s Property Acts, which varied state-by-state, many women did not have the legal right to own or profit from their inventions, up to the early 1900s. Thus, throughout the 1800s, in many parts of the country, women had little incentive to spend the time and money to secure patents in their names, because the degree to which they could financially benefit was limited. This also led to inventive women filing patents in the names of their husbands, brothers and other men within their trusted social circles. Thus, it is difficult to definitively determine the inventiveness of 19th century female inventors.
Considering these limitations, historians have estimated that about 4,000 patents were issued to women in the U.S. during the 1800s. Given that the U.S. Patent Office granted about 681,000 design and utility patents from 1800 – 1899, women were granted approximately .587% of all patents issued during the 19th century.
Worldwide, from 1912 to 1965, the proportion of patents filed that included at least one female inventor didn’t improve much, ranging from 2% to 3% each year, with the exception of a noticeable spike during and immediately after World War II, in which women were included on slightly more than 4% of patent filings, a figure that wasn’t reached again until 1975.
The 7 Most Prolific Female Inventors Of The 1800s
The list below only includes those inventions known to historians, via patent filings or other contemporaneous documents. Though the ultimate scope of these inventors’ creativity will never be known, it clearly extended beyond the reach of the inventions noted below. Also, these figures also only include original, U.S. patents, not patents that were later reissued or those filed in foreign countries.
1. Margaret Knight (active 1871 – 1912) 89 Inventions (22 Patents)
Ms. Knight is best known for her machine that commercialized flat bottom paper bags, which became the standard way customers took home their retail purchases for nearly a century. Despite leaving school at the age of twelve, she founded the Eastern Paper Bag Company in 1870 and her machinery was widely adopted, greatly expanding the market for economical paper bags. She also developed innovative automobile engines but was unable to convince automakers to commercialize her designs. You can read more about Ms. Knight’s incredible entrepreneurial career at, Celebrate Women’s History Month – Share This Inventor’s Profound Story With Your Children.
2. Catherine Griswold (active 1866 – 1889) 31 Inventions (All Patented)
Measured solely on the number of patents in her name, Ms. Griswold could be considered the most prolific American female inventor during the 1800s. All of her 31 patents related to apparel, including 19 related to mechanical and design improvements to corsets and 12 covering her unique designs.
Around 1876, the Dress Reform Movement began, which focused on making women’s fashion more comfortable and less constraining, reducing the harm to women’s bodies. Ms. Griswold preceded this trend a decade, patenting a “skirt-supporting corset,” which utilized elastic shoulder straps that bore the weight of the corset. Business directories of her time consistently listed her place of business for 25 years, evidence of her long and successful entrepreneurial career.
3. Helen Blanchard (active 1873 – 1914) 28 Inventions (All Patented)
In addition to being a productive inventor, Ms. Blanchard was also a successful entrepreneur, founding the Blanchard Overseam Machine Company circa 1876, to manufacture her proprietary sewing machines and related devices.
Though considered quaint and low-tech in the 21st century, industrial and home sewing devices were a hotbed of innovation throughout the 1800s. Dozens of women patented new sewing machines, improvements to existing ones, as well as a variety of peripheral devices. Of Ms. Blanchard’s 28 known patents, 22 related to industrial sewing machines, including the invention of a device that automated the zigzag stitch.
You are likely wearing an item of clothing that includes a zigzag stich, as it is commonly used to finish seams and create buttonholes. It has the inherent advantage of stretching with the fabric, so it is also frequently used on polyester and knit fabrics.
As an illustration of the mechanical complexity required to automate the zigzag stich, it wasn’t until 60 years after Ms. Blanchard created the first commercial zigzag machine that a consumer zigzag sewing machine was commercialized.
Ms. Blanchard also invented a surgical needle, a pencil sharpener, improved elastic goring for shoes and a corset-cord fastener. In 1891, she was described as an entrepreneur who, “… now owns great estates, a manufactory, and many patent rights that yield her a large income in royalties.”
4. Eliza Murfey (active 1868 – 1893) 23 Inventions (All Patented)
A contemporary article notes that Ms. Murfey filed for, “thirty patents,” though only 23 have been identified by historians. Though a practicing physician, she was driven to make the railroad travel safer, authoring several patents to improve lubrication of railcar bearings, axles and pistons. If these moving parts did not remain properly greased, the mechanisms would seize up, often with tragic consequences. Her processes were so effective, they remained in use, even after more reliable roller bearings were introduced.
It appears she became a prolific mechanical designer after her husband passed away, circa 1869, though the causality between his death and her engineering career, if any, have been lost to history.
It is interesting to note that several other women inventors also devised solutions during the latter half of the 18th century to reduce railway accidents, including: Laura Gott (railcar fire escapes), Jane Swisshelm (taillights on railcars), Harriet(t) Devian (lubricant applications), Eleanor McMann (safer sleeping births) and Augusta Rogers (safer railcar heaters).
In addition, Mary Walton licensed her elevated railroad noise suppression methodology for $10,000 in the 1880s (equivalent to approximately $270,000 in 2021), along with an undisclosed, ongoing royalty percentage. She also patented a method of consuming, “…all the smoke from a fire, furnace or locomotive…” Her antipollution discovery was heralded by British officials as, “one of the greatest inventions of our age.”
5. Harriet Tracy (active 1868 – 1893) 17 Inventions (16 Patents)
All of Ms. Tracy’s patents describe mechanical devices, 11 of which related to improving the sewing machine. She also designed a collapsible fireplace grate, a means of attaching cribs to bed stands and an improved fire escape which at the time was described as a “gravity elevator… (that featured) automatic platforms that keep the shaft constantly closed and prevent any person falling through it…”
We know that her elevator patent was commercialized, as an 1881 newspaper article notes that an example was, installed in, “… the new large building (at 80 E. 14th Street) where all interested can witness their operation.”
During a particularly productive phase of her career, she was granted ten patents between 1890 and 1893.
6. Maria Beasley (active 1878 – 1898) 15 Inventions (All Patented)
Nine of Ms. Beasley’s patents involved machinery, seven of which related to barrel making. According to contemporary authors, she successfully commercialized her barrel making technology and generated significant revenue from oil and sugar refineries. According to a 1912 account, her barrel-hooping patent was reported to generate $20,000 in annual royalties (approximately $540,000 in 2021) and she expanded the protection of her lucrative intellectual property by filing a patent in the United Kingdom in 1882.
Her patents outside of the barrel industry were eclectic, including a footwarmer and an improved roasting pan. In 1886, she patented a steam generator and in 1898 she was granted a patent for a “means of preventing the derailment of railway cars.” She was also granted two patents for an improved life raft. Like her hooping patent, she took the added (and relatively expensive) step of patenting her life raft improvements in the United Kingdom, leading historians to assume her intellectual property was commercialized.
7. Ella Gaillard (active 1874 – 1892) 15 Inventions (8 Patented)
In 1912, Ms. Gaillard was described as a woman who has, “distinguished herself by many inventions… (including) the eyeless needle now used so largely by surgeons.” This innovation eliminated the need to double the surgical thread, which is inherent when using an eyed needle. Using a single strand of thread facilitated reduced scarring and eyeless needles continued to be widely used in modern surgery.
She also invented a combination paperweight, calendar and musical watch, though it’s unclear if it was ever commercialized. In 1885 she invented a music box that incorporated a “portable fountain” that water spouted water, as music box played.
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