What names do you think of when you hear the word “inventor”? Thomas Edison? Benjamin Franklin? Alexander Graham Bell? I’ll bet it’s not Martha Knight or Nancy Johnson. Wait—who are those ladies, you may ask, and you would be asking a good question. They are just two of many women inventors. In fact, I would like to introduce you to some very special women. These women, most of them little homemakers themselves, made their marks on history by sharing with the world their own inventions that we find in the kitchen every day. Let’s meet these ladies and their inventions…
Sybilla Masters, one of America’s early pioneers, lived in colonial Pennsylvania in a time when women worked in the home as hard as men worked in the fields. Sybilla, married to a rather well-to-do merchant, Thomas Masters, lived a relatively leisurely life.
Sybilla had lived around Native Americans her entire life, and having observed them for a long time, she concluded (though erroneously) that maize cornmeal could have a healing effect for consumption. Yet, the process to grind cornmeal—which consisted of grinding the corn between two heavy stones—was tedious and difficult. Having observed how the Native American women hammered the maize into meal, Sybilla invented a machine that pounded the maize into cornmeal without the heavy and long labor. Because Pennsylvania did not issue patents at the time, Sybilla travelled all the way to England to have her machine patented. Patents also were not issued to women at the time, so it was issued under her husband’s name. Sybilla returned to the colonies, where she profited from her new invention.
Nancy Johnson, like many women of her day and ours as well, had a passion for summer’s hottest treat—ice cream. In fact, she invented her own machine for making ice cream, the same basic model that we use today. This ice cream maker was powered by the simple turn—and the turn…and the turn…and the many, many more turns—of a handle, which froze ice cream. She patented her invention in 1846 and sold the patent to a travelling salesman. With this fatal sale came the ice cream revolution. Not many years later, the first ice cream plant was established, and because of Nancy Johnson, we have one of the most marvelous inventions (in my own personal opinion) of all time!
In our modern age, even those of us who actually do our own cooking do not have to worry about how our stoves and ovens cook. During Elizabeth Hawk’s day, however, electricity had yet to be discovered, and cooking was a different chore. Women had to learn how to adjust their stove’s heat themselves—not always an easy calculation. That is when Elizabeth Hawk invented a stove that would spread heat evenly throughout the stove; this allowed bread to bake thoroughly, while remaining crisp and brown on the top. Patented in 1867, Elizabeth’s stove sold over 2,000 models within two months.
Maybe it’s not the invention that spurs a hearty round of applause, but the paper bag is an invention worth mentioning. Actually, the paper bag had been used for some time but only as small carriage devices. Groceries were still being carried out in baskets, crates, or arms when Margaret Knight came up with the idea of a sturdy square-bottomed paper bag. In 1870, she invented a machine that would cut, fold, and glue a square bottom to paper bags; by having a square bottom, the weight was distributed evenly, making the bag more operational as a carriage device.
As Margaret was improving her invention, she discovered that her idea had been stolen. Charles Annan had seen her machine earlier and decided to use her idea as his own. Margaret Knight decided to fight him and filed a patent interference suit against him; using her own sketches and notes, she proved her invention as her own and won her case. So today, every time you see your own groceries sitting in a paper sack atop the counter, you may think of Margaret Knight and her signature invention.
Josephine Garis Cochran
Though many had tried and failed, the invention of the first working dishwasher is credited to a woman, Josephine Garis Cochran. Josephine was a fairly well-to-do woman who finally got tired of her servants breaking her prized dinnerware every time they washed the dishes. She wanted a machine that would get the job done faster and with fewer casualties for her dishes. She could not find a machine to meet her wishes, so she just invented one.
Josephine measured her dishes and made racks to fit the pieces. The wire compartments were placed in a wheel within a boiler, where they were washed with hot soapy water. The machine worked; she had it patented in 1886 and demonstrated her invention at the 1893 Chicago’s World Fair. At the time, however, Cochran’s dishwasher was only popular amongst commercial users such as restaurants and hotels. Dishwashers did not become consumer household appliances until the 1950s; today they are common in most households across the United States, and it is all due to the ingenuity of Josephine Garis Cochran.
Eliza Wood had the same problem that housewives today have; she hated stooping over to wring dirty water from a mop. Maybe she had arthritis, making the simple task of wringing out water a painful struggle. Whatever the reason, Eliza Wood came up with the excellent idea of the wring mop bucket. She invented the bucket and received a patent for it in 1889. We still use wring mop buckets today, and they are so much more convenient than stooping over and wringing dirty mop water (not to mention cleaner!). Thanks to Eliza Wood, the messy household chore is quicker, easier, and free of hassle and grimy mess.
The rolling pin…such a simple tool, yet with immeasurable worth. Though Catherine Deiner did not invent the first rolling pin, she put her own spin on it. After receiving a patent for her invention of an improved rolling pin, Catherine advertised her product in an inventions magazine Inventive Age with this sales pitch, “Improved rolling pin is for sale. It consists of a rolling pin with an adjustable sleeve, which when placed on the pin gives the operator four cake cutters, making it possible to rapidly cut up dough into cakes without waste. It can be used in bakeries and families” (Anne L. MacDonald, Feminine Ingenuity: Women and Invention in America). Catherine Deiner was a woman who was not afraid to be in the kitchen nor to improve her kitchen talents.
Melitta Bentz was just an ordinary German housewife who wanted the strong taste of coffee without the bitter grounds. It was 1908, and coffee machines were not yet invented, so Melitta invented her own coffee machine. Using a little bit of common sense, Melitta realized she needed a filter media. But what could she use? Well, she took an ordinary copper pot, poked a hole in the bottle, and layered the bottom with her son’s notebook paper. Complicated process, huh? Well, it worked and became a quick success! Melitta had her invention patented as a “Filter Top Device Lined with Filter Paper,” and not long after her patent, she was suddenly in business. Though the coffee industry has changed quite a lot since Melitta’s day, we have clean, clear coffee today because of the ingenuity of a German housewife.
Did Florence Parpart really invent the refrigerator? For that matter, who is Florence Parpart? Florence Parpart was an entrepreneur and inventor who did indeed invent a refrigerator. Technically, she did not invent the first refrigerator, but she did improve the current model during the time and made the first “modern” refrigerator that used electricity. (Engaged to man who was highly skilled in electrical circuitry, Florence probably used his expertise to help perfect her invention.) She won a patent for her machine in 1914 and was successful at marketing and selling the product.
Not much is known of May Conner. She, like so many female inventors, was a housewife and obviously a cook. She came up with a simple, easy-to-use, and inexpensive invention that combined the uses of kitchen tools. She called her invention a combined egg beater and potato masher, but the useful tool could be utilized for many different kitchen applications, and to top it off, it was inexpensive to make and to buy. She had her invention patented in 1917.
A personal favorite of mine, chocolate chip cookies were invented—you guessed it!—by a woman. Her name was Ruth Wakefield, and her story is an interesting one. Ruth and her husband operated an inn and restaurant, and one day Ruth was baking a batch of cookies that called for chocolate. Unfortunately, she was out of baker’s chocolate, so being an innovative lady, she took a Nestle chocolate bar, crumbled it into pieces, and dropped them into the dough. When she took the cookies out of the oven, instead of finding melted chocolate in her cookies, the chocolate was in the same chunks she had thrown in the batch. The result was the chocolate chip cookie!
After this fateful accident, Ruth Wakefield’s cookies became a phenomenal hit; everyone passing by the inn wanted the famous “Toll House Crunch Cookies.” Not only were the cookies all the rage, but so were Nestle chocolate bars. Sales were rising so much that Nestle met with Mrs. Wakefield, and she and Andrew Nestle struck up a bargain. Nestle would print Ruth’s recipe on the chocolate package, and Ruth would receive a lifetime supply of Nestle chocolate. Today Ruth Wakefield’s recipe is still printed on the package of Nestle chocolate chips, and we have one of the most amazing food creations of all time because of Ruth Wakefield!
Maybe this name sounds more familiar; perhaps you have seen it on a pizza box. If you have ever eaten a Totino’s pizza before, then you have eaten the pizza that made Rose Totino famous. The success story began when Rose and her husband, a baker, decided to open a pizza shop, but they needed money to start the business. Positive that their pizza would sell, Rose baked a pizza and presented it to the local banker; they received the loan. This began a booming pizza business.
In 1969, a decade after the Totinos opened their pizza shop, they began a separate business selling ready-to-bake frozen pizzas. The only problem is that the pizza dough they bought was hardly appetizing, so Rose began to experiment with making her own frozen pizza dough. The process was long and tricky, but she finally got it right. Today, over 300 million Totino’s frozen pizzas are sold each year—a phenomenal tribute to an enterprising woman.