Nineteenth-century patents may not seem like the most thrilling subject for scholarly inquiry, but they tell us much more than just meets the eye. Most of us would probably assume that white men filed the majority of patents in the nineteenth-century United States. This is true. Filing a patent required a number of privileges including advanced literacy skills and technical training, but also money to finance the related court costs, especially hiring a lawyer. This does not even include the time and funds required to design and test one’s actual product. As such, Americans who filed patents in the nineteenth century were in many ways not representative of most Americans who lacked such resources.
Yet, this was not a completely homogenous group. In the 1890s though the 1910s newspapers reported the rise of women inventors, including those who were able to patent their inventions. A 1908 report in the Cincinnati Enquirer was typical in its declaration:
There is no question of the fact that women are going in for mechanics. Their inventions prove it; and they are taking out a greater number of patents every year.
The reporter then discussed the variety of women’s patients:
They cover the widest imaginable field… inventions of which are of the kind that mark steps in the upward progress of civilization.
Interestingly, even in a country in which women did not have access the benefits of citizenship, including the right to vote, reporter after reporter celebrated women inventors’ mechanical skills and intellectual pursuits.
Bicycling was one subject that women inventors took on with great enthusiasm. Women cyclists were not mere consumers, and in fact many took an active role in shaping the bicycling industry. Many women cyclists designed new bicycle models, clothing, and accessories. They typically created new products based on their needs as cyclists, which they felt male-dominated bicycling companies did not adequately address.
Clothing was one of the most common types of women’s bicycling-related inventions. Women cyclists designed a variety of bicycling skirts and outfits so they could ride safety while maintaining their respectability in public. In 1898, Ernestine Cottrelly patented a bicycling skirt which, due to a series of folds and plaits, was less likely to blow up and cause injury to the rider.
Cottrelly was in fact one of many women who took on challenges of designing a bicycling skirt and resulted in their own patented invention. Such patents offer us a new way to look at both the history of sport and the history of American business — one in which women are not simply consuming products, but actively creating them despite their economic and political limitations.
Sources: “Women Becoming Expert Mechanics.” Cincinnati Enquirer. November 1, 1908, pg. B7. Proquest Historical Newspapers. Ernestine Cottrelly, “Bicycle-Skirt” Patented August 30, 1898. Google.