Writing about political pioneers such as Victoria Woodhull and Belva Lockwood, it struck me that they were professional pioneers as well, breaking ground in careers new to women with their work in finance and the law. So I decided that I would dedicate some of this 2018 series to entrepreneurs and businesswomen. One avenue for women to succeed in business were industries and inventions related to the home, in which they could be seen as having insider knowledge and authority. Another avenue was in the related fields of beauty, health, and fashion, which I will explore next time.
Mary Ellen Pleasant (c. 1814–1904)
Mary Ellen Pleasant, abolitionist and entrepreneur, is one of those people I only know about from Drunk History. This, despite the fact that the smallest park in San Francisco, which is just a few blocks from my home, is named after her. In my defense, the park is really just a couple of eucalyptus trees she once planted in her yard.
Like so many female pioneers, not much has been confirmed about Pleasant’s early life. According to her autobiography, she was born a slave in Georgia but, after a series of twists and turns, ended up as an indentured servant on Nantucket, where she spent her early teens with a Quaker family. Since she was very light-skinned, she began passing for white and worked as a clerk in a general store and then as a tailor’s assistant in Boston. At some point, she met and married James Smith, a wealthy merchant and plantation owner of mixed race who also passed for white. Smith was actively involved with the Underground Railroad and Pleasant, already a strident abolitionist due to the influence of her adopted Quaker family, helped him with this work. After her husband’s death in the mid-1840s, Pleasant was left a wealthy widow and continued working as an abolitionist and slave rescuer until she had to flee west. She arrived in San Francisco in April 1852.
Since Pleasant had no official papers, she used multiple identities to avoid capture under California’s Fugitive Slave Act. As Mrs. Smith, she worked as a white cook and caterer in some of the most exclusive eating establishments in the city. With a secret partner, banker Thomas Bell, she opened a variety of businesses including restaurants, laundries, and boarding houses. As Mrs. Pleasants, she continued her involvement with the Underground Railroad, using her Mrs. Smith contacts to settle and employ new black arrivals. She also bankrolled and supported abolitionists, even leaving the city briefly to return to the East Coast and assist John Brown. Along with Bell, she amassed an incredible fortune. It is estimated that they were worth $30 million in 1875 (and, yes, that is $30 million in 1875 dollars).
In 1863, in the wake of the Emancipation Proclamation and the revision of the testimony laws in California, Pleasant declared her race openly. After being ejected from a streetcar in 1866, she fought for the rights of blacks to ride the local trolley system. Eventually her case ended up at the California Supreme Court and Pleasant v. North Beach & Mission Railroad Company outlawed segregation in the city’s public conveyances. Ultimately the courts proved to be her undoing, as she lost her reputation and her fortune in a series of court battles, first with the family of Thomas Bell and later when she bankrolled Sarah Althea Hill in her divorce lawsuit and appeals against Senator William Sharon, one of the greatest scandals of its day. Pleasant died in poverty in 1904.
Seriously, the Underground Railroad? Gold Rush San Francisco? John Brown? Where is this movie?!?
I’d rather be a corpse than a coward.
—Mary Ellen Pleasant
Josephine Cochrane (1839–1913)
Speaking of fine eating establishments, Josephine Cochrane was the inventor of the first commercially successful automatic dishwasher. Cochrane, née Garis, grew up in Indiana in a family of inventors and engineers (her grandfather was awarded a steamboat patent). In 1858, she married William Cochran, who would go on to be a well-to-do merchant and local politician in Shelbyville, Illinois. The Cochrans entertained frequently and Cochrane was supposedly inspired to invent the dishwasher to save her precious heirloom china from careless hands. After her husband died in 1883, she was finally motivated to do something about it and designed her invention in a shed behind her house. George Butters, a railroad mechanic, assisted her in constructing the first model, which used a fixed rack and water pressure (instead of scrubbers) for the cleaning action. Cochrane received a patent for the device in 1886. She installed one in her kitchen and her friends also used them, but Cochrane had very little success breaking into the home market—in addition to requiring a hot water heater to work, her dishwasher was also expensive and noisy. So she made some adjustments to configure it for professional use. Through her social contacts, she sold one to the Palmer House in Chicago, and then obtained a second contract by cold-calling the management of the Sherman Hotel. Finally, she showed her invention in Machinery Hall at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, where it was also used by the restaurants. She soon began receiving orders for machines from hotels, restaurants, and department stores, and founded a manufacturing company for their production in 1897. Cochrane herself oversaw installation and performed hands-on training for her customers. After her death, the Garis-Cochran company was bought by the Hobart Corporation, the manufacturer of Kitchen Aid mixers.
Melitta Bentz (1873–1950)
Born in Dresen, Germany, Melitta Bentz, née Liebscher, was the inventor of the coffee filter. Like Josephine Cochrane, Bentz was a housewife who came to her invention through dissatisfaction with existing options for brewing coffee. Percolators, the common method, had a tendency to over-brew the beverage, while espresso machines left coffee grounds in one’s cup. Linen bags resulted in good coffee, but were hard to clean. So Bentz began experimenting. Her final successful trial used her son’s blotting paper and a pot perforated with a nail to create the first drip-brew coffee filter. Bentz was granted a patent in 1908 and founded a company bearing her name, contracting with a tinsmith to make the pots and producing the paper filters with her husband in their apartment. After some initial success at the 1909 Leipzig Fair, Bentz recruited her husband and two sons to be employees. While her husband demonstrated the product in stores, Melitta hosted home coffee parties. Production was interrupted with the onset of World War I due to both paper and metal rationing as well as the halting of coffee bean imports. One of the things I most admire about Melitta Bentz is her treatment of her workers: She was known for being a progressive and fair employer, offering competitive salaries, Christmas bonuses, increased vacation days and time off on weekends, as well as a social aid fund for employees. After Melitta and her husband retired, her sons took over the company, and they were responsible for subsequent improvements to their mother’s invention, including a new design—this is when the filter took on its traditional cone shape. The grandchildren of Melitta Bentz still control the Melitta Group, which has approximately 3300 employees today.
Ida Annah Ryan (1873–1950)
From the designers and inventors of two ubiquitous household items, we move to Ida Annah Ryan, a designer of actual households. Ryan was the first woman to earn an M.S. degree from MIT and also the first woman in the United States to receive a master’s degree in architecture. She set up the first female architectural firm in the United States in her hometown of Waltham, Massachusetts, and was soon joined by fellow MIT graduate and suffragist Florence Luscomb. Together they designed both public and private buildings, including many of the finest homes in Waltham. With the onset of World War I, Ryan offered her services to the government and was the first woman to be employed by the War Department. With the housing slump that resulted from the war, Ryan moved to Orlando, Florida. There, after a short period of employment in an established firm, she formed an architectural practice with Isabel Roberts, who had worked with Frank Lloyd Wright. They designed many landmarked buildings still in Orlando today.
And so we come to the woman who inspired this post…
Lillian Gilbreth (1878–1972)
Lillian Gilbreth, née Moller, was an efficiency expert, industrial engineer, and organizational psychologist who is nevertheless best known as the mother in Cheaper by the Dozen (1950). Born in Oakland, California, she graduated from UC Berkeley in 1900 with a degree in English literature. In fact, she was their first female commencement speaker. She later pursued graduate work at Columbia University, Berkeley, and Brown University. In 1904, she married Frank Gilbreth, whom she met while passing through Boston on her way to the Grand Tour. Frank was an MIT dropout who had gone on to become an apprentice bricklayer, eventually forming his own construction company, and engineering and patenting numerous labor-saving devices.
Frank respected Lillian’s obvious intelligence and welcomed input from her in all his business affairs, and, despite wanting to have a dozen children, saw his marriage as a true life and business partnership. When Frank became interested in the new field of scientific management, he encouraged Lillian to get a degree in industrial psychology. They both attended the very first conference on scientific management, even though Lillian was nursing her first child at the time. In the early years, much of Lillian’s work was published under her husband’s name for credibility reasons, even though she was the one with a doctorate and he hadn’t finished college. Among other techniques, the Gilbreths pioneered the use of video playback to analyze worker motion. However, unlike Taylorism, they believed the human element and morale were critical to any improvement in efficiency. Perhaps it is unsurprising that much of their work carried over to their home life and they ran their increasingly large household using a parliamentarian system with family meetings and household committees for purchasing, utilities, etc. When there were extra chores to be done, the children had to submit bids to be able to complete them.
After her husband’s early death in 1924, Lillian turned to the areas of domestic management and home economics. If you currently have a “work triangle” in your kitchen, you can thank Lillian Gilbreth. With General Electric, she worked with thousands of women to design the ideal height for stoves, sinks, and other kitchen appliances. Gilbreth is also credited with the foot-pedal garbage can, refrigerator door shelves (including egg and butter compartments), and wall light switches. She filed numerous patents, including one involving improvements to the electric can opener. Gilbreth served as a marketing research and management consultant for Johnson & Johnson and Macy’s, who used her public image as a mother and modern career woman to build employee and customer trust.
Oh, and she actually has a g*ddamn movie!
To read more about these incredible women:
- Susheel Bibbs, Heritage of Power: Marie Laveaux to Mary Ellen Pleasant (2012)
- Lynn Hudson, The Making of Mammy Pleasant: A Black Entrepreneur in Nineteenth Century San Francisco (2002)
- Frank B. Gilbreth Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey, Cheaper by the Dozen (1948)
- Jane Lancaster, Making Time: Lillian Moller Gilbreth — A Life Beyond Cheaper by the Dozen (2004)
For previous posts in this Women 101 series, click below:
From Abigail Adams to Zenobia
Birds of the Air
Wasps and Witches
Soldiers and Spies in the Civil War
Soldiers and Spies in World War II
Adventurers and Explorers
From A to Z for Realz