A Home Without Women Is Almost Unrecognizable

published Mar 28, 2019
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(Image credit: Ana Hard Design)

Imagine a realtor showing a modern home in 2019 with no dishwasher, no refrigerator, no infrastructure for a home security system. Imagine waking up in your apartment on a Saturday morning and having no easy way to brew a cup of coffee. That would be a home without women.

It makes sense that women made such significant contributions to improving the efficiency, safety, and productivity of the home—that’s where they spent most of their time, given that other work options were limited. But despite their eye for invention, they weren’t always taken seriously—in fact, some of these creations were only recently correctly attributed to their female inventors, and many women had to co-author their patents with their husbands.

According to the Library of Congress, we may never know the full scope of female innovation, “because in this country’s early days, many women inventors didn’t use their own names on patent applications… There were also the women who worked with men to patent an idea, but were left off the record, and some women’s inventions were never patented or were sold to a corporation who then patented the idea.”

Even today, the world of engineering and invention remains a tough field for women to navigate. In February 2019, the U.S. Patent and Trade Office (USPTO) released a report that looked at the trends of women inventors from 1976 to 2016, and found that “women inventors made up only 12 percent of all inventors on patents granted in 2016.” That means that there’s a lot of brilliance going untapped.

To celebrate Women’s History Month, Apartment Therapy investigated some of the crucial spots in our home that were patented by innovative women in history, and we were inspired by what we found.

(Image credit: Ana Hard Design)

Margaret Knight: Flat paper bags

Apartment dwellers know how useful it is to repurpose Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s bags into spots for recyclables—they stand up on their own (and are recyclable themselves!). Margaret Knight was working at the Columbia Paper Bag Company in the late 1800s and conceived of a machine that would manufacture flat-bottomed bags far faster than the existing manual process. Knight’s machine could “cut, fold, and glue the bags together with the turn of a crank,” and after a battle over the patent, Knight’s invention was official. Think about it: Knight’s process was the precursor to paper grocery bags, brown bag lunches, and the gift bag you use when something is too tricky to wrap.

Brownie Wise: Tupperware parties

You can’t get the word out about a product without good marketing, and Brownie Wise’s ingenious PR plan made Tupperware a kitchen cabinet staple. In the 1940s, Wise joined the Tupperware team after realizing that Tupperware parties could bring in many key consumers—as an individual saleswoman, Wise was selling more Tupperware through her parties than large retail stores could sell. Wise continued to expand her reach in the company, and her parties became the most effective way to sell the product—eventually, she was a Vice President within the company.

Josephine Cochrane: Mechanical dishwasher

If doing dishes is your least favorite chore, you can thank Josephine Cochrane for making the task far more convenient. On December 28, 1886, Cochrane received a patent for a mechanical dishwasher, an idea sparked by a desire to wash dishes faster and without breaking them. Only one company was interested in manufacturing these dishwashers—the company was eventually known as KitchenAid.

Melitta Bentz: Coffee filter

The coffee filter is a perfect example of an under-appreciated invention: we use them and toss them without considering how efficiently they keep our morning joe grounds-free and make it easier to clean the machine. That paper, and the at-home drip-coffee, is thanks to Melitta Bentz, whose simple solution blossomed into a family-owned company that still operates today. Bentz’s “Filter Top Device lined with Filter Paper” was granted a patent in July 1908, and at 35 years old, Bentz became the namesake of the company.

Marie Van Brittan Brown: Home security systems

In an effort to make her home feel safer, Marie Van Brittan Brown pioneered a closed-circuit, remote-controlled security system that paved the way for future surveillance and security systems. With help from her husband, who worked with electronics, Brown’s system involved a two-way microphone to communicate with strangers outside the house, three peepholes on the door (for all heights), and a camera. A 1969 interview with The New York Times called the system the “patent of the week,” and noted: “Mrs. Brown pointed out the other day that it takes considerable time to dial the police and get action in an emergency. With the patented system, a woman alone… could alarm the neighborhood immediately by pressing a button.”

Lillian Gilbreth: Refrigerator shelves and trash cans

After her husband passed away in 1924, Lillian Galbreth became a woman of many firsts, including the first female professor at Purdue University and the first female member of the Society for Industrial Engineers. According to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), Gilbreth’s study of applied psychology was crucial in many of the problem-solving inventions that defined her career. Most notably, Gilbreth is responsible for the shelving inside the refrigerator door (a.k.a., where all the good condiments go), as well as the foot pedal-operated trash can (the great-, great-, great-, great-grandparent of our favorite trashcan, the super sleek Simplehuman). These two game-changing tweaks to the kitchen are only a fraction of the work Gilbreth did to make the home and workplace easier to navigate, and her contributions earned her a spot in the National Women’s Hall of Fame.

(Image credit: Ana Hard Design)

Sarah Boone: The modern ironing board

Sarah Boone realized that the existing ironing boards in the 1890s made for slow laundry day, because their rectangular shape made it difficult to smooth out sleeves. So, in 1891, Boone applied for a patent for a new ironing board constructed to make ironing easier—hers was narrower, with rounded edges “to correspond to the outside and inside seams of a sleeve,” which mirrors the shape of existing ironing boards today.

Florence Parpart: Refrigerator

For years, a refrigerator was more or less an icebox, but Florence Parpart had another idea: Electricity would make for a much more efficient appliance. The patented refrigerator attachment improved cooling efficiency through an electric system that circulated water throughout the appliance to keep the fridge cold. The patent, however, was filed in 1914 under Florence P. Layman—her husband was an electrician and was helpful in designing the product, so they applied together.

Sarah Goode: Cabinet bed

Sarah Goode must’ve had small space living in mind. Her “cabinet bed” certainly makes her a hero to anyone currently living in a studio apartment that benefits from the ingenuity of a Murphy bed. Goode filed a patent in 1883 for her flexible furniture which was “sectional bedsteads adapted to be folded together when not in use, so as to occupy less space, and made generally to resemble some article of furniture when so folded.” In her original drawings, Goode proved these beds could fold into fully functional desks as well, something we’ve never even seen at IKEA (but would be very cool).

Bertha Berman and Gisele B. Jubinville: Fitted sheets

Whether or not you think this is a life-saving invention, Bertha Berman is credited with improving the fitted sheet, and filed a patent in 1957. Berman’s hope was that with less material and a shape that better fit a box-shaped mattress, these sheets would be easy to apply and launder (though maybe she wasn’t concerned with folding). Berman’s original design was actually three separate pieces, and in fact, the fitted sheet we are more familiar with today was patented by Gisele B. Jubinville in 1992.

Clara Driscoll: The Tiffany lamp

Not all of Tiffany’s gorgeous glasswork was the brainchild of its eponym, Louis Comfort Tiffany. In fact, Clara Driscoll had a hand in many of the company’s famous projects, most notably the Tiffany lamp. An exhibit at the New York Historical Society in 2007 first publicized Driscoll’s important contribution to home decor, and historians explain that during her 20-year career at Tiffany, Driscoll spent some time as the head of the Women’s Glass Cutting Department. In reading notes and correspondence from her time at the company, they realized Driscoll and her team were responsible for conceptualizing the iconic glass lampshades.

Dorothy Rodgers: Toilet brush

“During the war I found myself cleaning the bathrooms and wondering why there wasn’t a pleasanter, more efficient method of cleaning toilet bowls,” Dorothy Rodgers wrote in her 1964 book, “My Favorite Things.” The inventor and interior decorator applied to patent the Jonny Mop in 1950, which included a disposable scrubbing pad on the toilet brush that could be removed without ever actually touching the brush. Rodgers also took care to re-imagine the actual structure of the brush, so that it was rigid enough to do cleaning but could still be flushed without clogging the drain. Though not many people use the actual Jonny Mop today, Rodgers’ thinking paved the way for a more pleasant way to clean the toilet—many brushes you’ll find today use her same system.

Charlotte Cramer Sachs: Baking mixes

How would we get through a late-night bake sale crisis or last-minute birthday baking without boxed mixes? After studying food and nutrition at the New York Institute of Dietetics, she developed a line of “instant food products” known as Joy Products. Sachs came up with mixes for all of the classic baked goods, and according to The Smithsonian, they became “very popular during World War II because women were spending less time at home and [had] less time to cook and bake from scratch.” And equally as impressive, Sachs is credited as inventing “the wine cellar,” as she came up with a storage system that kept wine at the perfect temperature. Cake mix and perfectly-chilled wine? Sachs is our hero.

Stephanie Kwovlek: Kevlar, used in gardening gloves, charging cables, and more

Those with a green thumb know the cut-resistant, heavy-duty gloves are best for a long day of yard work. These gloves are made with Kevlar which was invented by Stephanie Kwovlek in 1965. Kevlar is essentially a network really strong synthetic fibers—bulletproof vests are made of Kevlar, that’s how strong it is. Because of its durability, Kevlar is also used in many charging cables to protect the inner wiring. Kwovlek’s incredible contributions to science eventually earned her the National Medal of Technology and induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

Elizabeth Magie: Monopoly

Can you imagine game night if Monopoly wasn’t an option? It’s true—the classic game, originally called “The Landlord’s Game,” was invented by Elizabeth Magie, and her contribution was only recently recognized. Magie avidly fought for women’s rights, and spent most of her life working or creating—and her creative streak led her to conceptualize the original Monopoly, which was far more political than it is today. She applied for a patent in 1904, and her version had a jail and railroads and spots called “franchises,” which match to the current versions “utility” spaces. But Magie’s original game had two sets of rules: one where the goal was to collect all the wealth, and another “anti-monopolist” version where all players were rewarded no matter who gained wealth. Her hope was that the anti-monopolist version would catch on, teaching people that was the better system for living, but we all know how that worked out.