Strength, Thy Name is Woman!

Yesterday, my blogging buddy, Charles at Mostly Bright Ideas wrote a post called The Weird Uncle of Invention…one part of Charles’ post caught my attention, as he muses over who invented pole vaulting:

“It had to be a man, didn’t it?…For one thing, most women don’t have that kind of free time on their hands.”

Charles’ assertion caused those little wheels in my head to start spinning…what he said about women and free time is true.  After doing some research, I found that female inventors were responsible for a lot of things that people wouldn’t think of doing without today:

1. Bras.  Contrary to popular opinion, the brassiere was invented by a woman: a New York socialite named Mary Phelps Jacob (aka Caresse Crosby).  In 1913, she bought a new dress for a fancy evening affair, and was frustrated because the corset she wore under it was poking out in very unattractive ways and indiscreet places.  Mary grabbed a couple of silk handkerchiefs and a pink ribbon, and the Backless Brassiere was born!  Mary didn’t enjoy being a businesswoman, so sold her patent in 1915 to the Warner Brothers Corset Company for $1500.   Over the next 30 years, Warner made over $15 million selling bras to women who were tired of wearing corsets!

The original "Backless Brassiere" patent diagram...

 2. Chocolate Chip Cookies.  The invention of one of North America’s favourite cookies happened by accident.  Ruth Wakefield was the proprietor of a tourist lodge called the Toll House Inn in Whitman, Massachusetts.  She was making Butter Drop Do Cookies for the guests one day in 1930, when she discovered she was out of baker’s chocolate.  Ruth substituted some broken pieces of Nestle’s semi-sweet chocolate bars, expecting it to melt and act the same way as the baker’s chocolate…it didn’t.  The result was delicious, and the recipe for Ruth’s Toll House Crunch Cookies was published in a Boston newspaper.  In 1939, Betty Crocker featured the cookie on her national radio show.  Sales of the chocolate bars soared!  Ruth was no dummy…she made a deal with Andrew Nestle to print the recipe on the chocolate package in return for a lifetime supply of Nestle chocolate.

Ruth's recipe on the back of a Nestle chocolate chip package...


3. Dishwashers.  In 1886, Josephine Cochran got tired of her servants chipping her fine china in Shelbyville, Illinois…she declared “If nobody else is going to invent a dishwashing machine, I’ll do it myself!”  She invented a hand-operated mechanical dishwasher, and formed the Crescent Washing Machine Company.  Josephine unveiled her invention at the 1893 World’s Fair, but only hotels and large restaurants seemed interested in Josephine’s idea.  The general public didn’t use dishwashers much until the 1950’s.  The company Josephine founded to make her dishwasher eventually became KitchenAid (now owned by Whirlpool).

Josephine Cochran: "It's hard to get good help!"


Cochrane's Dishwasher (she added an "e" to her name)...


4. Disposable diapers.  Indiana native, Marion Donovan, was a housewife and mother of two living in Connecticut after World War II.  After changing her younger daughter’s sodden cloth diaper (and clothing and bedding) for the umpteenth time, Marion used a sewing machine to make a waterproof diaper cover out of a shower curtain.  The Boater  was better than rubber pants, because it had snaps instead of safety pins, didn’t cause diaper rash, and didn’t pinch the baby’s skin.  The Boater flew off the shelves at Saks Fifth Avenue when they started selling it in 1949, although Marion was unsuccessful in attracting manufacturers willing to produce it.  She patented it in 1951, and sold the rights to Keko Corporation for a million dollars.

Marion then started working on creating a fully-disposable diaper, using special paper that was strong and absorbent, but also carried moisture away from the child’s skin.  She shopped the idea around to all the large manufacturers in the country, but nobody jumped on it.  It was ten years later in 1961 that Victor Mills used Donovan’s idea to make Pampers.   Over a 45-year period, Marion held patents for 20 inventions including the DentaLoop, a two-ply dental floss that eliminated the need for wrapping dental floss around one’s fingers. 

Marion Donovan, and her nice dry baby...

5. Grocery bags.  Paper bags used to be shaped like envelopes until Maine native Margaret Knight came along.  While working in the Columbia Paper Bag Company, in Springfield, Massachusetts, she created a new machine part that automatically folded and glued the paper to form a square bottom.  Workers installing the equipment argued with her, because they didn’t think women knew anything about machinery.  In 1870, Margaret founded the Eastern Paper Bag Company.  After patenting her bag machine design in 1871, she went on to be awarded some 26 patents for different inventions including a window frame and sash, machinery for cutting shoe soles, and a rotary engine. 

Apparently, Margaret's male co-workers were wrong...she did know about machinery!


6. Liquid PaperBette Nesmith Graham wanted to be an artist, but life got in the way.  Shortly after World War II, she was a divorced mom with a son (Michael Nesmith, later of The Monkees) to support, so Bette got a job as an executive secretary at a bank in Dallas, Texas.  Bette was a conscientious worker, and sought a better way of correcting her typing mistakes when she made them.  As a painter, Bette knew that artists painted over their mistakes on canvas…why not apply the same idea to paper?  She brought in some tempera paint and a watercolour brush, and started using them at the office.  The boss didn’t notice, but her co-workers did, and asked for some of her correcting fluid.  Bette put some in a bottle, and labelled it “Mistake Out” before passing it to her friend.  In 1956, Bette launched the Mistake Out Company from her home, using her kitchen as a laboratory (with some advice from Michael’s high school chemistry teacher), and working nights and weekends to meet the demand for her hot new product.  She was finally able to devote all her time to the business after being fired from her secretarial job for an error even Mistake Out couldn’t correct (she typed her company’s name instead of the bank’s)!  In 1962, Bette married Robert Graham, who joined her in running the company, which grew into a million dollar business by 1967.  The business was renamed Liquid Paper in 1968.  Bette sold the company for $47.5 million in 1979, and died six months later.

Bette Nesmith Graham


7. Trashcans with the foot pedal.  A native of California,  Lillian Moller Gilbreth was a superwoman before it was fashionable: she was an inventor, author, industrial engineer, and industrial psychologist.  When she wasn’t busy with that, she looked after her twelve children (her daughter and son wrote Cheaper by the Dozen)!   Lillian was a pioneer in the field of ergonomics, and she and her husband, Frank, were among the first scientists to acknowledge the effects of stress and lack of sleep on the worker.  Their Time and Motion Studies were developed in part from living with their huge family.  In the 1920’s, Lillian worked doing marketing research for Johnson and Johnson.  Lillian was later employed at General Electric as an industrial engineer, and interviewed over 4000 women to design the proper height for stoves, sinks, and other kitchen fixtures.  She patented many kitchen appliances, including an electric food mixer, shelves inside refrigerator doors, and my favourite: the trashcan with the foot pedal.

The Gilbreth family in the 1920s (one child short of their dozen)

 There are dozens of things invented by women…here’s a link to a list: .  I hope you’ve learned something today…I did!


Filed under history

59 responses to “Strength, Thy Name is Woman!

  1. Great article! I learned a lot and smiled too.

  2. So interesting! If I had invented the bra, I would have used mixing bowls wired together.

  3. All of these ideas are incredible, but I especially like your recount of Bette Graham and her liquid paper. Fascinating. And, being an idiot speller, I can admit to having used bottles of her product back in high school. Great post, Wendy!

    • Thanks, Maura…Bette certainly did well with her idea! Liquid Paper saved my butt on more than one occasion too! Our assignments were usually hand-written in those days, so if you messed up on the good copy, you often had the rewrite the entire page! Wendy

  4. Wendy, I loved this post!! How interesting. I liked the liquid paper and Bette Graham also.

  5. jacquelincangro

    Terrific! I love this kind of information.
    I just wrote a post about one of the strongest women of all who enabled the women on this list to invent these wonderful things: Susan B Anthony. It was her birthday last week. 🙂

  6. Women are so smart. And inspiring. I just can’t stand trash cans that don’t have the foot pedal. Gross!

  7. Go Ladies go! All fab inventions.

  8. Dang, I hate it when my servants chip my good china!! I knew about the liquid paper as I’m a big Monkees fan (though I am not a fan of monkeys…yuck). While I’m glad at my age the bra was invented, I really, really hate them…LOL.
    Thanks for sharing these wonderful women of invention, Wendy. Have a blessed weekend, Diane

    • I feel your pain, Diane…good help is hard to find…LOL! Truthfully, I’d be happy if the kids would load their dishes in the dishwasher instead of leaving them to harden wherever they eat… I loved The Monkees too, but didn’t know much about them other than they were cute, and I liked their songs! Bras aren’t my favourite thing either, but I’d rather not put my own eye out! Hugs, Wendy

  9. Fascinating, Wendy. I really enjoyed this one. Women are amazing!
    Hugs from Haiti,

  10. Cool beans! I really, really enjoyed this Wendy. I’ve also wondered about disposable diapers for a while. Great theme. I think you’ll be hearing from me about this post in the very near future 😉

  11. It spans everything… creating bras and diapers to engineering. Great post! I’ll go check out more women inventors… when I have some time. Busy weekend ahead.

    Happy weekend to you!

    • There were so many inventions to choose from, Koreen! I tried to pick those that benefitted the greatest number of people…there were a lot of medical and technical inventions too! Glad you enjoyed it! Hugs, Wendy

  12. So women invent . . . all things practical 😉

    Great post, Wendy! Thanks for the info.

  13. thank you, it is so good to read all this. makes one realise just how many women probably invent things everty day to make their own lives easier, but don;t have the time to market them.

  14. Great post, Wendy. You did a lot of research in a short time. I was surprised by how many of those inventions are generally attributed to men. Maybe I should have said, “most women don’t have that kind of free time to devote to frivolous amusements.” Also, I’m always amazed at how complex that manufacturing equipment is. Just look at the diagram for the paper bag machine.

    • Thanks again, Charles, for the inspiration to do the post…research is something I enjoy almost as much as writing! “Short time”…it took all day! I’m not technical at all, but I certainly admire people who are! Wendy

  15. So interesting, Wendy!! Thank you also to Marion Donovan. I’m a big fan! I love the inspiration for the dishwasher too. I’m going to share this with the history buffs in my family.

    (I like the new look!)

  16. This Rocks! Smiles all around!
    I only knew of the Toll House Cookies and Liquid Paper. Another learning moment. So sad that Bette Nesmith Graham died so young. She would have loved her liquid paper becoming those cartridges of Correction Tape today. Not that I ever had to use it. 🙂
    Special blessings for Josephine and her Glorious Dishwasher.
    Thanks Wendy,

    • Glad you enjoyed the post, Barb…Yes, poor Bette was only 56 when she died! My kids are big fans of Correction Tape! We could not live without a dishwasher here…unlike Josephine, we don’t have servants! Wendy

  17. girl power! girl power!

    I am, as ever, deeply indebted to the inventer of the bra.
    enjoy your Sunday! fun post.

  18. I knew about Michael Nesmith’s mom (which is why he was never in a big rush to join any of the Monkees reunions), but it’s hard to believe something as simple and perfect as a chocolate chip cookie has been around only 80 years.

    P.S. Completely useless trivia: Mike Nesmith won the first Grammy for music video. So, there you go.

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  20. With the supposed political “war on women” in the States this is timely. Love Liquid paper. Like Todd I thought the chocolate cookie had been around forever.
    Informative and Fun post!

  21. jesswords10

    This post is perfect to kick off next month as Women’s History Month! Thank you for researching some wonderful women who knew how to take charge and make life a little easier. I loved this!

  22. Yay! Women rock! Just goes to show, for women, necessity IS the mother of invention. They never say the ‘father’ of invention, now do they??!

  23. Women invent out of necessity…there’s only so much that can be done in a day and we need all the help we can get!!

  24. What an interesting post, Wendy! And I loved the inspiration for it. We women are just unbelievable, aren’t we?
    The Monkees have recently announced a reunion tour in the UK in 2011, sans Michael Nesmith.
    Sunshine xx

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  26. Totally enjoyed this post Wendy! Women are truly super-cool, especially Gilbreth with 12 kids, still finding time to invent stuff!! And here I am going nuts over one! I loved Cheaper by the Dozen 🙂

    Hugs, H.

  27. Thank you! I really enjoyed reading this post today. Every single entry made me go WOW.

  28. Well aren’t us women pretty darn fantastic!

  29. Emma

    This website helped me on my oral 4 school! This helped me a lot thnx so much!

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