In honor of Black History Month, IPWatchdog will be featuring profiles of black women inventors—some of whom are little-known and many of whom never profited from their inventions—throughout the month of February.
In August 1888, Ellen Elgin, a black woman housekeeper, invented a clothes wringer which allowed clothing to be washed and dried faster by feeding clothes through two rollers to wring out the clothing, thereby making them easier to hang and dry. Elgin sold her patent to a white person because she felt it would have a better chance at success than if people knew the inventor was a woman of color. Thus, U.S. Patent No. 459,343 lists Cyrenus Wheeler, Jr. as the inventor.
Elgin was born in Washington D.C. in 1849. During her lifetime she worked as a housekeeper and a government clerk. Little else is known about Elgin, as with many other early black women inventors. Her invention was very useful, as it came at a time when garments were washed by hand and hung to dry. Through her work as a housekeeper, Elgin recognized the need to expedite the drying process as a way to make laundering clothes more efficient.
Elgin chose to sell her patent to “a white person interested in manufacturing the product” for $18 (the equivalent of about $495 today). She stated in an April 1890 issue of “Woman Inventor”: “I am black and if it was known that a Negro woman patented the invention, white ladies would not buy the wringer. I was afraid to be known because of my color in having it introduced into the market that is the only reason.” Beyond the $18 payment, Elgin did not profit from the sales of the Clothes-Wringer. She continued to work as a government worker throughout her lifetime. If not for Elgin’s statements in Woman Inventor, the first publication devoted entirely to women inventors, she may have been completely unknown.
Elgin’s invention related to improvements in clothes-wringers, wherein the speed of the rollers could be increased or decreased “by a suitable system of spur-gearing” as determined by the operator. Thus, larger, thicker fabrics may be more easily passed between the rollers when a lower rate of speed is applied “by the engagement of the operating hand-crank with the spurs of the smaller intermediate spur-gear and with comparatively no greater expenditure of power than when a higher rate of speed is desired.” Further, a higher rate of speed may be applied “by the engagement of the operating hand-crank with the Spurs of the spur-gear on the shaft of the lower roller when it is desired to pass…smaller fabrics more quickly between the rollers.” The specification further noted that “[i]t will readily be seen that a child may thus be enabled with equal facility to manipulate large and small fabrics between the rollers with like ease and expenditure of manipulative power.”
The sole claim of the patent recited:
In a clothes-wringer, the combination of the rollers, the U-springs supporting the rollers, the gear-wheels affixed to the projecting ends of the roller-shafts, the two fixed axles at the end of the wringer, the two gear wheels of different sizes supported by and free to turn upon the said fixed axles, arranged to mesh with each other and with the gears on the roller-shafts, the link connecting the shaft of the upper roller with the upper one of the fixed axles, and the crank adapted to be interchangeably secured to either the gear-wheel of the lower roller or to the smaller intermediate gear-wheel, substantially as set forth.