Women of Aspenland
by Catherine C. Cole
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Inventive Spirit, a province-wide research project about the history of
invention in Alberta, was initiated by the Medicine Hat Museum and Art
Gallery in 1995 as a collaborative research and exhibition project of the
Alberta Regional Museums Network, a group of community museums throughout
Alberta. In 1998, the Red Deer and District Museum, one of the initial
partners, assumed responsibility for project management and development of
a feasibility study for a travelling exhibition. Inventive Spirit has
developed a database of approximately 3,972 inventors who created
approximately 4,179 inventions patented from 1905-1975. Of these
inventors, approximately 81 were women; of these, a small handful of women
was from Aspenland.
Inventive Spirit compiled all entries in The Canadian
Patent Office Record of inventions patented by Albertans during this
period. While the interests of the project extended beyond patented
objects and processes, use of this source enabled development of a
scientific, quantifiable database. These items were then cross-referenced
by category (structures, building furnishings, personal artifacts, tools
and equipment, communication artifacts, transportation artifacts, art
objects, recreational artifacts, societal artifacts, packages and
containers, and unclassifiable artifacts), classification, object name,
name of the inventor, gender (where indicated by the inventors name),
patent number and date.
The database enables us to draw conclusions about
inventive activity in Alberta; it suggests relationships between the
nature of the invention and the economy and helps to identify trends and
concerns, such as: adaptation of farm machinery to local conditions;
storage and transportation of grain; alternative sources of energy in the
pre-electricity era; the development of the oil and gas industries; and,
with the emphasis on heating and transportation, the importance of winter.
Although provincially the inventions were predominantly agricultural, they
ranged from mining tools and equipment to building technology,
transportation vehicles and accessories, domestic technology,
communications equipment, etc. Collectively they represent the ingenuity,
adaptability and independence of the people who have lived in Alberta.
The fact that such a small proportion of the inventors
were women doesn't necessarily mean that women were less inventive than
men simply that their names are associated with fewer patents. Women may
well have collaborated on, or made unacknowledged contributions to, some
of the inventions patented by their husbands, fathers, brothers or sons,
particularly domestic items. Also, patented inventions only tell part of
the story. Inventions are patented when the inventor thinks that there may
be financial gain by developing, manufacturing and marketing their ideas.
Many inventions by women weren't commercially viable but were ingenious
solutions to common problems.
The Alberta Women's Institutes (AWI) an organization
dedicated to educating women for their roles as wives, mothers and
community volunteers, commented in 1923 that:
'Nothing has been done to improve the conditions of
life in the country, particularly that portion of the farm work done by
the farmer's wife.' Why is this? My husband tells me that women themselves
are to blame for this for not one invention of any kind in line of making
woman's work easier was invented by a woman. Have we no women of inventive genius?
There were a few patented inventions by women, but more
commonly, women developed make-dos, and shared their ideas freely.
Make-dos are objects that have been created using, modifying or adapting
existing objects for another purpose or to make them more effective for
their original function. They tend to become common throughout a
geographical region or cultural group, and are difficult to trace to an
inventor, as such. An example would be the berry pickers made from tin
cans and nails, an adaptation of the earlier wooden version.
Women developed new approaches to housekeeping that
were spread from mother to daughter, neighbour to neighbour, through
women's organizations like the AWI, the United Farm Women of Alberta and
church groups, and through articles in farm magazines such as the Nor'West
Farmer and Farm and Ranch Review. For example, the column "Real Helps for
Homemakers: Some of them Invented by our Readers," encouraged women to
send in information and sketches of their "handy home-made household
device." One column features a spoon rest for the top of a kettle that was
designed by W.A.J. of Alberta.
J.J. Brown asked the question "What is an important invention?"
in his book Ideas in Exile: A History of Canadian Invention. In his mind, the economic
criterion was the most significant:
We are amused by the mechanical skirt lifter invented
by the Calgary lady in the 1890s to help her get across the muddy streets,
but it cannot be considered an important patent from any point of view.
The criterion I have tried to use is basically an economic one. How many
million dollars' business does that industry now do every year? How many
jobs have been created by the new industry?
This attitude reinforces women's reluctance to patent
their inventions they weren't taken seriously. Thinking back to a time
when Calgary's streets were not paved, women's skirts rubbed the ground,
clothing was very difficult to clean, baths were infrequent, and women's
undergarments weren't particularly hygienic, the mechanical skirt lifter
is important from a social history perspective, although not from an
economic history perspective.
Of the inventors included in the database, the women
from Aspenland were: May Florence Stewart, of Coronation, who with Walter
Chafe Cole was an assignee of a half interest in a pneumatic tire in 1916;
Edith R. Thomas, of Trochu, who patented a dishwashing machine in 1923;
Ida May McLeod, of Hobbema, who patented a sanitary food protector in
1930; and Petrea Christine Sharp, of Bashaw, who patented an embroidery
kit in 1933. It was very difficult to find out more information about
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