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Historical Women Inventing

Marion Donovan

Sometimes we’re destined to be something and Marion Donovan was predetermined to be an inventor. Born and raised in Ft. Wayne, Indiana in 1917, Marion’s father, uncles and brothers were all inventors. But that role didn’t come to her until later. Marion moved to New York where she worked as a beauty editor for Vogue Magazine, but after getting married, quit her job to raise a family.

At the time diapers were cloth, fastened with safety pins, covered with rubber baby pants. In turn, diaper rash was caused by the rubber baby pants, but not using them caused wet cribs.  As Marion wondered how to keep her babies dry and diaper rash free, she looked at her shower curtains for inspiration. She designed the diapers with the process of cutting and sewing the curtain into what she termed the “Boater.” It was made of a cloth that allowed the skin to breathe and also included snap fasteners instead of safety pins.

Marion knew she had a great product but was rejected by numerous manufacturing firms, stating that there was no need for her diaper pants. Not to be put off, Marion knew enough about manufacturing and marketing that she made the “Boater” herself. After receiving her US Patent No. 2,556,800 1951, she sold the rights to Keko Corporation that same year for $1 million.  During an interview in 1975 with Barbara Walters she explained “I went to all the big names that you could think of and they said ‘we don’t need it- no woman has asked us for that…’ so I went into manufacturing myself.”

In Marion’s lifetime, she would patent up to 20 ideas, including a space-saving closet system and a flossing product called the DentaLoop, as well as receiving her architecture degree from Yale in 1958, one of only 3 women in her class. In 2015, Marion was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.


Sybilla Masters

One of the first person(s), if not the first person, to receive a patent in the American colonies was wife, mother, inventor and entrepreneur, Sybilla Masters. Sybilla was married to a wealthy Quaker merchant, Thomas Masters. They moved to Philadelphia where he served as a judge and mayor. As a colonial wife and mother, Sybilla worked hard to care and feed her family. Corn was a main staple in the colonies and Sybilla would watch Native Women grind the corn with wooden posts and millstones. She took their process and invented a mill that used hammers. The device pulverized the corn (or maize) by stamping rather than the usual grinding.

Additionally, Sybilla designed a fabric that took straw and leaves, and created a way to weave them into hats and bonnets. She wanted to secure patents for her inventions, but patents were a new idea, and not all colonies had patents including Philadelphia. In order to receive her patents, Sybilla travelled to England in 1712, and applied for a patent from King George.

Her patent for the process of Cleaning and Curing the Indian Corn Growing in the several Colonies in America was granted three years after her application in 1715. It was the first patent to be given by the king to any persons in the colonies. But women weren’t allowed to hold patents, so patent #401 was given to Thomas Masters and at his insistence, the patent included the words, “…for a new invention found out by Sybilla, his wife.”  In 1716, her second patent #403, entitled “Working and Weaving in a New Method, Palmetto Chip and Straw for Hats and Bonnets and other Improvements of that Ware” was also granted.

Sybilla returned back home and Thomas Masters opened a mill, using his wife’s method. Her invention allowed corn to be processed into other foods and materials. They started producing their cornmeal product, Tuscarora Rice. The hominy meal has been called the “first American patent medicine,” since it was offered as a cure for consumption.



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