Saturday, May 14, 2011




I spent most of this year’s Mothers Day watching a golf tournament on Foxtel with my Reluctant Traveller.  In his eighties now, he rarely plays the game  mainly because  he needs a seeing eye dog to see just where his golf ball has landed.   No he’s not blind, just can still hit an almighty long ball way out of  his sight and I refuse to play retriever.

That’s really got nothing to do with this particular story, but the fact that the Wells Fargo Tournament was held in North Carolina does. And that’s why I sat glued to the TV set  because in the late 1790’s my Quaker Browns had passed through the Carolina’s, on their way to Georgia and eventually to Ohio.

Combine the day when most of us think especially of our Mothers with my ancestors journey through that part of America so very long ago, and you have the subject for this particular story.  It’s all about resourceful women from way back before America became the U.S.A.



An engraving by Trenchard based on a detail from a painting by Charles Willson Peale as published in the Columbian Magazine.c 1790
 In writing this history of Grandpa’s Quaker forebears I frequently try to imagine myself in his great-g-g-g-Grandmother’s shoes; facing the everyday chores of a 17th century woman:  The birthing of babies for a start and then the never ending battle to feed and clothe the little darlings not to mention the health safety factor.

The old saying about ‘keeping the home fires burning’ had an entirely different meaning in those days before the advent of instant strike matches.  Of course the men didn’t have it any easier but it certainly helped when their womenfolk were thinkers as well as do-ers; like for instance Sybilla Righton the wife of Quaker merchant Thomas Masters. 

Early Quaker families got on very well with their Indian neighbours.  There  are countless stories of trust and friendship between the two. 
As Quaker groups settled in a defined area they invariably built a grist mill.  I’ve recounted the story of Richard the Entrepreneur who set up various saw mills, malt house and  grist mill on a tributary of the Potomac River.  Richard’s grist mill using two heavy stones would have served several families at a time when it made sense to mill corn for a large group rather than just the one family.

Sybilla and Thomas Masters probably worked their grist mill in Philadelphia in a similar fashion.

But Sybilla had observed Native American women converting their Indian maize into a floury powder by constantly pounding the grain with large wooden posts.  She closely watched them at their work and realised her husband’s grist mill would be more effective if it used hammers instead of grinding wheels.

And so this Quaker woman put pen to paper and invented a type of pulveriser that cleaned and cured the corn.   It was a major breakthrough for mill owners but because she was a woman, the patent  for her invention had to be taken out in her husband’s name.
And the evolving American States of that time, around 1712, had yet to set up a patents office.

SYBILLA MASTERS INVENTION -Pennsylvania Historical Society
  In an era where women seldom entered the worldly affairs of men, Sybilla took ship to London to secure the patent from the court of King George 1st.   She was away from her family for such a long period that William Penn’s wife, Hannah who was in England at the same time, 1716, wrote to a mutual friend in Philadelphia... 

“...I hope Sybilla Masters will also return to hers,  (her home) All her friends, I believe, in these parts wish it and I hope she is prevailed on to attempt it for the good of herself and her family.”

Four years later Thomas Masters filed another patent when his wife invented a fabric made from palmetto and straw.  This time she set up shop in London to sell hats and bonnets made of the fabric.

Her husband obviously thought highly of his wife, but some hundred years later her reputation had still to contend with masculine cynicism as this comment by a Mr. T. Graham Gribble in the August 1891 Scientific American shows:

“...a much later but very quaint patent is that of Dame Sybilla of Philadelphia for corn shelling and preserving... she writes in German text, hard to decipher and very antiquated for that period...

...“Letters patent to Thomas Master of Pennsylvania, Planter, his Execrs., Amrs, and Assignees of the sole use and benefit of ‘A new Invention found by Sybilla, his wife, for cleaning and curing the Indian Corn growing in the several Colonies of America... 

It is to be feared that Dame Sybilla’s invention did not attain to as wide a field of application as was covered by the letters patent.  It is more than probable that the obtuse agriculturist continued to shell corn sitting on a pine plank with a spade edge to scrape them off by, in spite of the “paines and industrie” of the dame”.

When Gribble called Sybilla a ‘Dame’ he wasn’t referring to a royal title and he wasn’t serenading her a la ‘Sinatra’!.

Despite all that Sybilla has the great distinction of being America’s first female inventor.



Sybilla may have been the first woman in America to wear the title Inventor, but she certainly wasn’t the last.  Just a few years after America established its own patent office in 1790 a Mrs Samuel Slater patented a new way of spinning cotton thread. Her husband built the acclaimed Slater’s mill in Rhode Island and while he is remembered, his wife is not.
Another lady with a keen mind, Mary Potts, invented  ‘Mrs Potts Cold Handle Sad Iron’ patented in 1870 thus ‘easing the strain of constantly seared hands’. An invention only a woman’s keen and persuasive mind could dream up.

Women had been using flatirons for a number of years, but putting these heat induced devices to use, was often very painful indeed... until Mrs Potts dreamt up her version of the ‘sad’ iron. 

If you’re wondering how on earth anyone could describe an iron as sad, ( actually, ironing day is often a sad one for me)  rest assured, in those days it was another way of describing a heavy iron.

In other words the same heavy metal contraption already in use but adapted to include a removable handle, that meant you could have two or three such irons heating on the stove with just the one handle, plus a handy trivet to rest the implement on between the highly starched collars, cuffs and shirts of the day.

Of all the early patents issued this would have to be the topmost invention of benefit to women.  I’m sure my Great-greats valued their Mrs Potts Irons above all other possessions.




However the honour of being the first woman in the United States to actually receive a patent  lies with Mary Dixon Kies whose invention impressed and no doubt thoroughly titillated a  President’s very fashionable wife.

Connecticut born Mary Dixon Kies’ invention was patented in 1809 and praised by President Madison’s wife, the redoubtable Dolley.  Mary’s invention,  a process for weaving straw with silk or thread came at a time when France under the influence  of Napoleon was blockading trade with America. 

With many items either unprocurable or in short supply Mary’s invention boosted the State’s hat manufacturing trade.  But even though Mary held the honour of first woman in the USA to obtain a patent, some eleven years earlier Betsy Metcalf from New England had already invented a method of actually braiding straw.

Metcalf went on to successfully manufacture her hats but never attempted to secure a patent.  When asked why she replied she didn’t want her name sent to Congress.


Not only were women inventing domestic aids they were also making their name in fields previously open only to men.  Martha Coston in 1871 patented pyrotechnic flares to be used as Night Signals allowing ships to communicate.  Sarah Mather in 1845 patented her invention of a submarine telescope and lamp. 

Such was America's avalanche of inventive women around that time, the organisers of the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876 set aside a separate Women’s Pavilion to display the many achievements by women inventors; those either with, or in the process of obtaining patents.

The women’s lib genie had certainly begun to pop her cork.



It seems appropriate to finish this article the way we started, with another woman of strong religious convictions.

Shaker Village of Harvard Massachusetts

You could say this lady was the inventor with the most unusual background; Tabitha Babbitt, a Shaker Sister credited with inventing the  first circular saw used in a saw mill.

Tabitha was working in the spinning house at the Harvard Shaker Community in Massachusetts in 1813 when she saw a way to improve the two-man pit saws being used there for lumber production.

The Shakers, officially known as the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, settled in the American colonies in 1781.   Their leader, Mother Ann Lee arrived from England in search of a place she had seen only in a vision.  That vision was finally realised as the small valley that eventually became the Harvard Shaker Community.

Mother Lee’s followers chose to observe celibacy, enjoy communal life and follow a unique form of confession of sins.   They  also believed in separation from the world, equality of the races and genders, and similar to the Quakers, they believed in pacifism.

A Shaker Meeting
The tag ‘Shakers’ was  an apt description given by non-Believers (known to the Shakers as ‘the World) who watched their practice at meetings of whirling and trembling in order to ‘shake off’ the sins of the world.  Because these regular meetings were open to the public their ecstatic dancing became common knowledge and the meeting hall soon became a popular venue for local voyeurs.

Tabitha was only 29 when she worked in the spinning house and though there are several other claimants to the circular saw invention, the one she made  is said to be currently on display in Albany, New York.   Tabitha Babbitt and others of her Society, are also credited with inventing cut nails, the flat broom, a pea sheller, threshing machine, a turbine water wheel and an industrial washing machine, but as practicing ‘Shakers’ neither she nor her fellow members ever patented any of their inventions.


This diversion from my Grandfather’s Quaker past is just another of those sidetracks my internet research often leads me into.  I am fascinated by the past, in this case with the resourceful pioneer women and their daughters who led such difficult lives yet triumphed over adversity.


I will be back on track with the next chapter that continues where Quakers 5 – Georgia and Beyond left off...



Robyn Mortimer ©2011