Laundry was a grueling task in the 1800s. Fuel and water had to be gathered, clothes scrubbed and wrung by hand, then hung to dry, and later pressed with heavy irons heated on a stove. Wash, rinse, repeat. Women who worked in their own homes and those employed in the homes of others dreaded laundry day. Seeing a market opportunity, manufacturers began producing many new household technologies, all advertised with the goal of lessening the drudgery of housework. While researching these devices, I was struck by the absence of women in patent records. Despite laundry being considered women’s work, men usually held the patents for these inventions. But considering that women had the most expertise with the labor and its tools, wouldn’t they be more likely to improve them? Unsurprisingly, they did, but their contributions remain hidden.
One such case was that of Ellen Eglin, an African American domestic servant and resident of Washington, DC, who invented an improved clothes wringer. Instead of patenting her invention, Eglin sold it to an agent in 1888 for $18. The wringer brought its owner “great financial success,” according to Charlotte Smith of The Woman Inventor, a short-lived publication that brought attention to women inventors and the issues they faced. If it weren’t for this brief article, Eglin’s story would be completely lost. When asked why she decided to sell, Eglin said: “You know I am black and if it was known that a Negro woman patented the invention, white ladies would not buy the wringer; I was afraid to be known because of my color in having it introduced in the market, that is the only reason.” Eglin also joined Smith’s labor union, the Women’s National Industrial League (WNIL), and was slated to become chairwoman of the Committee to Organize Colored Women.
By 1900, African American women made up a large and growing proportion of domestic workers. Many of these women were doing twice the household labor—at their job and at home. Eglin’s story pushed my question further. With all this time on the job, why do we know of so few black women inventors developing household technologies during this period?
One reason is that a reliance on patent records for understanding the history of invention obscures the contributions of all women, especially African American women. While race and gender did not officially bar someone from applying for a patent, there were numerous social hurdles that prevented women from patenting their ideas. These included lack of access to relevant technical education, beliefs about the kind of work appropriate for women, limited discretionary income, time and access to the necessary networks, discriminatory property rights . . . the list goes on. For African American women, these factors were exacerbated by racial discrimination. Even when black women were able to overcome these obstacles and secure a patent, it can be difficult for researchers to identify them because the US Patent Office didn’t record the race or gender of applicants.
The wringer below was manufactured around the time when Eglin sold her invention. In the three years between when she sold her wringer and when she gave her interview for The Woman Inventor, many of the top wringer manufacturers in the US consolidated into the American Wringer Co., which manufactured this device. During that consolidation, they were buying up every wringer patent and innovation they could get their hands on. Though we do not know who purchased the rights to Eglin’s invention, it is possible that an agent from one of the companies which later became the American Wringer Co. or a third-party intermediary did so. Is this wringer directly connected to Eglin’s improvement? We will probably never know for certain, but it can be seen as a symbol of a process that swallowed up Eglin’s invention.
Many of the objects in the museum’s collections have been there for decades, some for over a century. While the objects remain the same, new generations of historians ask different questions and tell new stories by reinterpreting objects and contextualizing them in different ways. While researching this wringer, the questions I had led me to Eglin’s story.
Often those who use tools are central to the process of invention. If we expand our understanding of the invention process to include not only patent records, but also the series of unpatented improvements made before and after a patent was secured, how many innovators might be revealed? In many cases, the layers of invisibility that surround the contributions of African American women mean that we will never know the full stories behind the objects in our collections. But by using the collections to tell stories like Eglin’s, we can draw attention to the processes that obscure those stories, allowing us to present a more inclusive and accurate history.
Max Peterson completed a curatorial internship in the Division of Home and Community Life at the National Museum of American History, working with curators Shelley Nickles and Barbara Clark Smith on an online exhibition on the history of housework. He thanks Genealogy Specialist Hollis Gentry at the National Museum of African American History and Culture for her assistance in researching Ellen Eglin.