Opera Plots in 101 Words or Less, Act III



In the third act of our series on concise opera plots, it’s all German all the time. Specifically Wagner, or, as I like to think of him, Vague-ner. Not that he’s vague so much as his plots seem to wander all over the place, much like a hobbit on his way to Mount Doom.

You may remember that I promised this post way back in May 2015, after writing the first two acts of this plot production. At the time, I had recorded HD versions of the Metropolitan Opera’s entire “Ring” cycle on my trusty DVR, which turned out to be not so trusty. And so, watching and summarizing Wagner’s epic masterpiece was put on hold. Until now.*

As in my posts on the warhorses, I’ll be sticking to 101 words or less** per opera. It almost makes me wish I spoke German, since then I could use really long words.

I’ve included the three other Wagner operas I’ve seen live (Der Fliegende Holländer, Lohengrin, and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg) in this post, but it focuses on the oft-quoted Der Ring des Nibelungen, a series of four “music-dramas” that tell the story of a little person who forges a magic gold ring of power that everybody covets. Also, there’s a sword that needs to be pieced back together. Sound familiar?

Both rings were round, and there the resemblance ceases.

—Sure, Tolkien, whatever you say.

SPOILER ALERT: There are no puppies or unicorns, but there is a rainbow. Who says Germans aren’t lighthearted?

Richard Wagner, Der Fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman) (1843)
Based on: a retelling of the Flying Dutchman legend by Heinrich Heine
Notable Cultural Reference: Captain Video and His Video Rangers
Setting: Norway, 18th century

Storms + sleepy watchman = stealth ghost ship. Math is fun! Enter the Dutchman, cursed to roam the seas until he finds someone faithful unto death. Since Captain Daland values gold more than his daughter, he invites the stranger home. Cue Senta, who’s hanging with her friends, spinning and singing, as girls do. The stranger looks exactly like Senta’s Tiger Beat Dutchman portrait, so she’s all in. Unfortunately, ex Erik strives to remain relevant and his whining drives the Dutchman away. Senta throws herself into the sea, thereby lifting the curse. Like dogs, they all go to heaven, so it’s cool.

Sung in: German
Memorable Music: Overture, “Summ’ und brumm’, du gutes Rädchen” (aka the Spinning Chorus)

Richard Wagner, Lohengrin (1850)
Based on: medieval German romance; the chanson de geste Garin le Loherain
Notable Cultural Reference: Father of the Bride and every wedding you’ve ever attended
Setting: Antwerp, 10th century

Swan, swan, hummingbird, swan. Actually, scratch that, there’s no hummingbird. There’s also no baby duke Gottfried! Count Friedrich accuses Elsa, Gottfried’s sister, of foul play so he can rule instead. Visiting King Henry decrees God will judge through single combat. A knight appears (via swan boat) to fight for and marry Elsa; however, she can’t ask his name or birthplace. She eventually does. Nosy parker. So, Lohengrin, knight of the Holy Grail and protector extraordinaire, must leave. And… swan. OMG, baby Gottfried is a f*cking swan, y’all. Ortrud’s a witch and cursed him ages ago. Elsa, stricken with grief, falls dead.

Sung in: German
Memorable Music: “Treulich geführt” (aka the Bridal Chorus, aka “Here Comes the Bride”)

Richard Wagner, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (1868)
Based on: an original story by Richard Wagner
Notable Cultural Reference: Triumph of the Will
Setting: Nuremberg, 16th century

Knight Walther, in town on business, spots Eva and falls hard. Alas! Eva is to marry whoever wins the local song contest. David, who crushes on Eva’s companion Magdalene, explains the rules of mastersinging (it’s a thing, okay?). Walther can do this, no problem (he can’t). Burgermeister Meisterburger Beckmesser, who also wants to marry Eva, fumes. He serenades a disguised Magdalene by accident, much to the dismay of David. Fight! Fight! Walther (literally) dreams up the perfect song and cobbler Sachs stirs the pot by ensuring Beckmesser plays the fool. For some reason, this takes almost six hours to play out.

Sung in: German

Greer Grimsley as Wotan in San Francisco Opera’s Der Ring des Nibelungen. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Richard Wagner, Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung) (1876)
Based on: Norse sagas and a medieval German epic poem
Length (with no intermission): 15 hours

The “Ring” cycle consists of four operas intended to be performed together in sequence: Das Rheingold (The Rhine Gold), Die Walküre (The Valkyrie), Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods, or, as I like to say, Goddamn It’s Long). They tell the story of the theft of the Rhine gold and the forging of it into a magic ring of power and the tragedies that befall those who possess it. The four operas total about fifteen hours (without intermission) and follow multiple generations of mortal men and gods. Balance is only restored when the ring is destroyed by fire. Think The Lord of the Rings, but with more women.

The Rhinemaidens and Alberich in Das Rheingold. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Richard Wagner, Das Rheingold (The Rhine Gold) (1869)
Notable Cultural Reference: Xena: Warrior Princess: “The Rheingold”
Length (with no intermission): 2 hours, 30 minutes

Pretty but dumb Rhinemaidens let dwarf Alberich steal the Rhine gold and forge a magic ring of “boundless might.” Meanwhile, Wotan and Fricka build a shiny new castle but won’t pay contractors Fasolt and Fafner, so the giant brothers take Fricka’s sister Freia hostage. When the gods realize they can’t live without Freia’s Fountain of Youth™ apples, Wotan and sidekick Loge trick Alberich and steal his ring as ransom. Alberich curses his “precious” to bring woe to all who possess it. Gold, gold, gold. Bicker, bicker, bicker. Fafner clubs Fasolt to death. Everybody else scampers over the rainbow bridge to Valhalla.

Sung in: German
Memorable Music: “Bin ich nun frei” (aka Alberich’s Curse)

Tough love from Wotan in Die Walküre. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Richard Wagner, Die Walküre (The Valkyrie) (1870)
Notable Cultural Reference: Apocalypse Now; Bugs Bunny: “What’s Opera, Doc?”
Length (with two intermissions): 4 hours, 30 minutes

Siegmund is on the run. He shelters with unhappy wife Sieglinde and husband Hunding, recounting his tale of woe. (Mother dead! Sister abducted!) Siegmund and Sieglinde have the hots for each other, but, gross, they’re twins. Remember cheapskate Wotan from Rheingold? He’s their father! Wotan instructs favorite Valkyrie daughter Brünnhilde to protect Siegmund, but Fricka wants to punish the couple. Brünnhilde tries to save Siegmund but only manages a pregnant Sieglinde and a shattered sword. Wotan leaves Brünnhilde sleeping on a rock surrounded by a ring of fire. As you do. The Valkyries are all sound and fury, signifying nothing. Cowards.

Sung in: German
Memorable Music: Hojotoho! (aka Ride of the Valkyries)

Nine Valkyries? Hey, aren’t there nine Nazgûl? I thought so.

—Me, just now.

“Renewed shall be blade that was broken…” by Daniel Brenna as the eponymous Siegfried. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Richard Wagner, Siegfried (1876)
Notable Cultural Reference: Django Unchained
Length (with two intermissions): 4 hours, 50 minutes

We open on Mime, brother of ringmaker-heartbreaker Alberich, who has, in a not-at-all-suspicious twist, adopted the fearless son of Sieg2. It’s a small world after all. Mime thinks Siegfried can get him the One Ring. You remember, the one with the fratricidal giant Fafner? FYI: He’s now a dragon (don’t ask). Strider the “Wanderer” arrives and poses a few riddles, Siegfried drinks blood and learns to speak bird (again, don’t ask), and Mime gets what’s coming to him. A broken sword is forged anew, a spear is shattered, and Siegfried awakens a sleeping Brünnhilde with a kiss. Also, there’s a bear.

Sung in: German
Memorable Music: Siegfried’s Horn Call

At first, Siegfried mistakes Brünnhilde for a man and, when he removes her armor, cries ‘That is no man!’ My god, Tolkien, you are shameless.

—Still me.

Iréne Theorin as Brünnhilde in Götterdämmerung. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Richard Wagner, Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods) (1876)
Notable Cultural Reference: Excalibur
Length (with two intermissions): 5 hours, 15 minutes

Norns of Exposition™ provide a “previously on” and serious foreshadowing. Siegfried puts a ring on it, but eventually bails, heading straight into the hands of those plotting against him, including Hagen, Alberich’s son. Very, very long story short, Siegfried is mindwiped and gets the One Ring back, earning Brünnhilde’s wrath. Meanwhile, Wotan moans about losing his spear (not a euphemism) and prepares for the worst. Tricksy Hagen kills twice over to get the ring but a ghostly Siegfried says “Nein!” Brünnhilde takes one for the team, riding the ring straight into the fires of Mount Doom. Fire and flood cleanse all.

Sung in: German
Memorable Music: Siegfried’s Funeral March

San Francisco Opera’s Der Ring des Nibelungen. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Tune in next time for the unknown, but not unsung, at least when it comes to the movies. I promise it won’t take me three years.

*I’d like to give a special shout out to the woman who couldn’t use her own set of tickets to the San Francisco Opera’s most recent production of The Ring as well as @revgirrl who got them for me. I didn’t always agree with the staging or production choices, but the singing was fantastic across the board. Bravo!

**If you are thinking of commenting that this should be “fewer” instead, please read this first.


The Great Unseen 3: Midnight Movies


After a long break for mad travelling in October and December, mad movie watching for Noirvember and the Oscars, and mad blogging about some bad-ass women for Women’s History Month, I am back with my final “The Great Unseen” post, which covers the cinematic canon from the 1960s through the 1990s.

As a reminder, for this series, I selected three to five critically acclaimed or culturally significant films that I hadn’t yet seen (or thought I hadn’t seen) to represent each decade from the 1920s to the 1990s. My goal was to watch at least twenty-five of these hitherto unseen canonical works over the course of this project. You can see the original list here.

I am happy to say I have finally achieved my goal, although I must admit that this final group seemed much more like homework than my earlier forays.

Since my last post, I managed to get through a further fifteen films on my list: Blow-Up (1966), Cool Hand Luke (1967), In the Heat of the Night (1967), The French Connection (1971), Barry Lyndon (1975), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Taxi Driver (1976), Mad Max (1979), The Thing (1982), Body Double (1984), Raising Arizona (1987), Wild at Heart (1990), Daughters of the Dust (1991), Orlando (1992), and Beau Travail (1999). As a reminder, I also watched Pretty in Pink (1986) early on in the process. Plus, I watched three more new-to-me classics as a direct result of this project—Z (1969), Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), and The Driver (1978).

As with my first and second posts in this series—Matinée Idle and Dinner and a Movie—the old adage of “classics are classics for a reason” has proved true. Not that I loved every film I watched, but I appreciate that they are mostly deserving of their place in the canon.

And with that… Lights! Camera! Action!

Cool Customers

Blow-Up (1966) by Michelangelo Antonioni
Cool Hand Luke (1967) by Stuart Rosenberg
In the Heat of the Night (1967) by Norman Jewison
Barry Lyndon (1975) by Stanley Kubrick
The Driver (1978) by Walter Hill

I’m really sorry that I first saw Blow-Up after already having seen Blow Out, the Brian De Palma remake, which is far more satisfying from a plot perspective. However, from a sociological perspective, Antonioni’s film is a fantastic portrayal of London in the swinging 60s. [Side note: Among other 1960s icons, this film stars an unrecognizable Jane Birkin in a minor role.] In Blow-Up, a fashion photographer—based on real-life photog David Bailey—believes he has unwittingly captured a murder on film. Despite this intriguing mystery element, the film is more about a day in the life of this photographer than anything else. As such, it has perhaps the least satisfying ending of all the films in this post, with, of all things, mimes playing tennis. It does, however, have a cool use of diegetic music, with a score by jazz pianist Herbie Hancock.

Speaking of cool, along with Barry Lyndon (see below), Cool Hand Luke is a film where I had to make multiple viewing attempts. I tried to watch it a few times last year and just couldn’t get into it. Even when I did finally sit down and watch the whole thing, it definitely ebbed and flowed for me. I think one reason is I couldn’t figure out the character of Luke, and so he just couldn’t hold my interest despite being played by Paul Newman. Plus, the film is very heavy-handed with its Christian symbolism—even the folk song Newman sings (beautifully) is called “Plastic Jesus” for crying out loud. Still, I always like a good prison drama and visually it is a stand out, with lots of beautiful imagery and extremely interesting framing and angles. This is definitely one I am happier to have watched than I was to watch it. I chalk that up to director failure.

What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.

In the Heat of the Night is one of the films on my list that I didn’t have strong opinions on one way or another. I had no idea if I would like it or not. I loved it. The plot, the performances, everything. The film only feels dated in the sense that race relations somehow seem worse now? The basic plot is that Sidney Poitier plays Virgil Tibbs, a Philadelphia police detective who is waiting for a train in a small town in Mississippi when he is picked up for the murder of a local bigwig. Rod Steiger plays the local police chief who, after initial skepticism on both sides, enlists Poitier’s help in solving the crime. The murder gets solved a little too quickly at the end, but that is a minor quibble for a film that deservedly won five Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Steiger.

They call me MISTER Tibbs!

Barry Lyndon was one of the films on my Great Unseen list that I was particularly dreading. For its length of course (just over three hours), but also because Kubrick is hit or miss for me. I did have a couple of stops and starts with it; however, once I got over the half-hour mark, I was fully into it. Really, I shouldn’t be surprised, because I love gorgeous period dramas, and this film is certainly that. Every frame is a painting (literally). Plus, it was based on a novel by William Makepeace Thackeray, whose satirical Vanity Fair I loved when I read it yonks ago. Additionally, I usually love when a director takes on a technical challenge and Barry Lyndon does that with a vengeance: Kubrick desired to avoid electrical lighting wherever possible and used ultra-fast lenses to shoot the interiors. [Side note: Although it is often stated that this film is shot entirely with natural light, that is not the case.]

The photography is a fantastic achievement and deservedly won an Oscar for its cinematographer, John Alcott. The film also won Oscars for Adapted Score, Art Direction, and Costume Design. It was nominated in seven categories, but “lost” Best Picture, Director, and Adapted Screenplay to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Not too shabby. Really, I think the only change I would make to the film (beyond cutting down on the military scenes) is Ryan O’Neal, who seems a bit too bland for the role of Redmond Barry. Of course, I wouldn’t have cast O’Neal in The Driver either, where I thought the same thing. [Side note: The Driver was okay but I really don’t see what all the fuss is about.]

Barry Lyndon is certainly not for everyone, but it may end up being my favorite Kubrick and is probably one of the three films in this post I am most likely to revisit.


Z (1969) by Costa-Gavras
The French Connection (1971) by William Friedkin
Dog Day Afternoon (1975) by Sidney Lumet
Taxi Driver (1976) by Martin Scorsese

The French Connection was a film that I was really looking forward to, despite knowing almost nothing about it. I didn’t even know that there was an actual French connection! I have to say, I was rather disappointed. I had a real hard time following what was going on, even with the subtitles turned on. I guess that makes sense since the director has said that the documentary-realist style of the film was based on Z, another film I had been meaning to see for some time, but ultimately proved to be rather confusing and fairly disappointing. Both films picked up for me in the second half, and they have their high points, but I think I just don’t like the style used. Of course, my disinterest might also have to do with the fact that these films paint an incredibly bleak picture of our world, and that’s just not what I want to see right now.

Dog Day Afternoon is one of those 1970s films that comes up quite often on lists of great heist movies, which is how it found its way onto my original Great Unseen list. Although I really enjoyed this film, I do not agree that it is a heist film, which I think needs to have either an “assembling the crew” sequence or an intricately planned crime, preferably both. The only thing this really has in common with heist films is the back-end “heist gone wrong” element. Still, this is a great “heist gone wrong” film—brilliant performances all around and way ahead of its time in terms of social commentary and representation. Or maybe it’s a reminder of how we seem to only now be getting back to that type of thing. In any case, this is perhaps why Dog Day and In the Heat of the Night seem the least dated to me, even if the look of both is incredibly dated.

On the other hand, the visuals of Taxi Driver seem remarkably fresh. Unfortunately, that was the only thing I really liked about the movie. This is definitely one of those “homework” films I mention above. I’m happy I saw it but do not think I will ever seek it out again. I’m known for not particularly liking unreliable narrators and the subject matter and main character are supremely uninteresting to me. Annoying even. It’s like Catcher in the Rye in movie form. The fact that this is so high on the Sight & Sound list (#31) only goes to prove how much film criticism is dominated by stunted men. I mean, I know women like this film too, but I just couldn’t get past the unrelenting violent misogyny and racism. Perhaps if the ending had been more clearly a fantasy, Taxi Driver might seemed more of a condemnation than a lionization of this behavior, but, as is, this movie is just repellent to me.

An approximation of my face watching Taxi Driver

And sometimes this

Mad as Hell

Mad Max (1979) by George Miller
Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) and The Thing (1982) by John Carpenter
Body Double (1984) by Brian De Palma

Speaking of repellent, Mad Max. Well, not repellent exactly, but, oh man, not what I expected after loving Fury Road so much. I was really looking forward to this, but it didn’t hold much interest for me. I just couldn’t buy into this world. Definitely grindhouse territory. I know that The Road Warrior is supposed to be much better, but I’m not sure I can muster up enough enthusiasm to seek it out. We’ll see.

If only they had had Sigourney Weaver…

Luckily, I was able to quickly rebound from Mad Max with a John Carpenter double feature of Assault on Precinct 13 and The Thing. I had been meaning to watch both as part of this project, but Assault didn’t make it on the official list because I had so many 70s movies to watch ahead of it. Given that Assault is an updated take of Rio Bravo, I suppose it is not surprising that I loved it. From the plot, to the humor, to the incredible characters and camerawork, this is simply one of the best action films I’ve ever seen. In fact, The Thing was almost a letdown after Assault, but it’s very good as well. It probably suffers somewhat from my having seen so many television episodes and other movies riffing on The Thing before actually watching the inspiration itself, but that can’t be helped.

How could I not love this crew?

I go through all that, and his gun isn’t even loaded.

—Leigh in Assault on Precinct 13

Body Double is another film that suffers somewhat from my familiarity with other similar films, although in the case of Body Double, it is the films that inspired De Palma rather than the other way around. Body Double also feels incredibly dated, both in its look and attitude. And that’s before you even get to the Frankie Goes to Hollywood video that randomly appears in the middle of the movie. Nevertheless, Body Double has some good twists and turns and its representation of Los Angeles really stands out from the pack.

Crazy Stupid Love

Pretty in Pink (1986) by John Hughes
Raising Arizona (1987) by Ethan and Joel Coen
Wild at Heart (1990) by David Lynch

This string of films is where everything I thought I knew about myself went right out the window. As someone who generally loves the Coen brothers and still loves Sixteen Candles despite its problems, I thought I would love both Pretty in Pink and Raising Arizona and hate Wild at Heart, but no, the exact opposite proved to be the case.

Oddly enough, while the film mostly avoids the problematic messages of Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink is mediocre at best. The stakes are so low that it is hard to care about anything that happens. The “rich” kids aren’t even that rich and the “poor” kids certainly don’t seem to be very poor. Not to mention James Spader seems about a gazillion years too old for high school and just comes off as ridiculous. And don’t even get me started on that god-awful dress. Yikes.

The best thing by far about Pretty in Pink

Raising Arizona is a film I thought I hadn’t seen but in fact am now pretty sure I did but just didn’t remember. Why didn’t I remember it? I guess because it’s not really funny and sort of boring. That’s right, I said it. It’s like the Coen brothers were trying to make a screwball comedy like Arsenic and Old Lace (which I love) but instead made Bringing Up Baby (which I really dislike). There’s just too much slapstick and stupidity here for me.

So I suppose it’s odd that I liked Wild at Heart as much as I did because in many ways it has a similar vibe to Raising Arizona, with an extra dose of stupid and crazy. But maybe that’s just because Nicolas Cage is in both. Given how much I liked Twin Peaks when it was first on the air, I don’t know why I didn’t see this when it came out. However, I imagine I might have hated it then for its weirdness. But I love this pair of crazy kids; they are truly one of the great cinema couples and very much partners in their individuality, if that makes any sense.

The way your head works is God’s own private mystery.

—Sailor to Lula in Wild at Heart

Feminine Mystique

Daughters of the Dust (1991) by Julie Dash
Orlando (1992) by Sally Potter
Beau Travail (1999) by Claire Denis

And, finally, three canonical films by female directors, all of which I avoided (for a variety of reasons) when I first undertook my #52FilmsByWomen project.

I have long known that Daughters of the Dust was considered a classic but, to be honest, I thought it looked rather boring. Had I known it also used non-linear storytelling I probably never would have considered adding it to this list. However, that approach really worked for the storytelling here, which in many ways reminded me of Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, though on a smaller scale. And the visuals are gorgeous. Gorgeous.

You can’t get back what you never owned

—wise words from Nana Peazant in Daughters of the Dust

Orlando I avoided because it was Virginia Woolf. While I didn’t come away loving this, it was certainly very interesting and another film that was gorgeous to look at. I love how the travel through time was represented. It would have been nice to have some sort of explanation or context for the gender change—I’m not sure why it didn’t happen when Orlando first fell into the deep sleep. It almost makes me want to read the novel. Almost.

I watched a series of Claire Denis films when I first did #52FilmsByWomen, including Chocolat (1988), 35 Rhums (2008), and White Material (2009), but Beau Travail escaped my notice because I wasn’t particularly interested in watching a film about the French foreign legion. Had I known it was loosely based on Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, and was partially scored with Benjamin Britten’s opera of the same name, I might have taken notice. Heck, just knowing it opened with everyone dancing to Tarkan’s “Şımarık” might have gotten me to pop this one in the DVD player. In any case, this is more of a tone piece than anything. You do have to be in the right mood for it.

Shirtless men exercising to opera? Sign me up!

And that’s a wrap, folks! If you undertook my Great Unseen challenge, let me know what you ended up watching in the comments below.


The Great (Formerly) Unseen
Blow-Up (1966)
Cool Hand Luke (1967)
In the Heat of the Night (1967)
The French Connection (1971)
Barry Lyndon (1975)
Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
Taxi Driver (1976)
Mad Max (1979)
The Thing (1982)
Body Double (1984)
Pretty in Pink (1986)
Raising Arizona (1987)
Wild at Heart (1990)
Daughters of the Dust (1991)
Orlando (1992)
Beau Travail (1999)

Other Classics
Z (1969)
Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)
The Driver (1978)

For previous posts in The Great Unseen series, click below:
The Great Unseen
Matinée Idle
Dinner and a Movie

Tune in later this week for my film quarterly report and definitive ranking of The Great Unseen!

Women 101—Fashion Forward


In this third and final installment on female entrepreneurs, we look at three women from three different continents who had an enormous impact on the world of modern clothing and fashion.

Rose Bertin (left) and Marie Antoinette (right) as painted by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun

Rose Bertin (1747–1813)
For this first entry, we are going all the way back to the “let them eat cake” days of Marie Antoinette. Marie-Jeanne Rose Bertin was dressmaker to the queen and is credited with the birth of haute couture—not just by creating Marie Antoinette’s gowns, which established France as the center of the fashion industry, but because she was savvy enough to understand how quickly fashions might change and how to profit from that.

Bertin came from a stable, if not wealthy, family in the north of France. Both her father and mother worked outside the home so that they could provide an education for Bertin and her brother. Her father died when she was still fairly young, but the family was able to stay afloat through her mother’s work. Bertin moved to Paris at the age of sixteen and with her intelligence and affability was quickly able to become apprenticed to a royal milliner (who later became her business partner).

Most important to Bertin’s success were the relationships she established with various members of the nobility. The first she met was the Princesse de Conti, when Bertin mistook her for a servant while making a dress delivery and started chatting to pass the time. Apparently, the princess took to her instantly and soon recommended Bertin to design the trousseau for a friend’s upcoming wedding. This was not just any wedding: it was the wedding of the wealthiest heiress in France to the Duc de Chartres, cousin of Louis XVI. This wedding commission not only brought Bertin royal favor but also a tremendous amount of business, prompting her employer to make her a partner. Soon after, the Duchesse de Chartres became an official patron to the dressmaker and, in 1770, bankrolled Bertin’s own establishment on the Rue Saint-Honoré.

The duchess was also instrumental in establishing Bertin’s contact with the future queen, lobbying the ladies-in-waiting at Versailles to have Bertin make the outfit that the young Marie Antoinette would change into at the border upon her entrance to the country. In 1772, Bertin was officially introduced to the dauphine and was awarded a royal order to dress her that amounted to roughly $4000 in 1772 dollars (out of a clothing budget of $24,000). But Marie Antoinette was soon spending much more than that on her clothes, with much of it going to Bertin. We’re talking millions in today’s dollars.

Bertin would present her designs to the queen twice a week and they spent numerous hours discussing clothing details. This relationship was key to Bertin’s business model. Seeing how quickly the queen would become bored when everyone started dressing as she did, and how important dressing in the latest styles was to life at Versailles, Bertin learned to cycle her new designs down to the rest of the court as quickly as possible, which would kick off new conversations with the queen, and so lead to nearly continuous orders. Bertin also created many fashion dolls, called pandores, which the queen would give as gifts. These essentially served as fashion magazines do today.

Even in prison during the early years of the French Revolution, Marie Antoinette availed herself of Bertin’s services (albeit on a much smaller scale) including a mourning outfit for her husband’s execution. Soon, however, Bertin wisely moved her business to London, serving many of the émigrées who had also fled France. Bertin returned to France in 1795 and continued to dress the well-to-do, including Joséphine de Beauharnais, the wife of Napoléon, but, in the wake of the Revolution, Bertin had gone out of fashion. She eventually transferred her business to her nephews and retired.

Il n’y a de nouveau que ce qui est oublié.

There is nothing new except that which has been forgotten.

—Rose Bertin, 1785

Annette Kellerman (1887–1975)
Annette Kellerman was born in New South Wales, Australia, the daughter of two musicians. Due to the need to wear steel braces on her legs as a child, her parents enrolled her in swimming classes at a very young age in order to help strengthen her legs. By the age of fifteen she was swimming competitively. In 1902, she won multiple championships, breaking records as she went, including a world record for swimming one mile. After moving to Melbourne, she gave swimming and diving exhibitions and also performed as a mermaid and in the theater. (Later, Kellerman would help popularize the sport of synchronized swimming with a performance of the first water ballet in a glass tank at the New York Hippodrome.)

In search of more lucrative opportunities to compete and perform, Kellerman and her father moved to England. In 1905, Kellerman was one of the first women to attempt to swim the English Channel—three times—although she was unsuccessful. Still, these attempts (and her training swims), which were sponsored by the Daily Mirror, won her much notoriety. As a swimmer, Kellerman was best known for championing the one-piece bathing suit (instead of the usual pantaloons and dresses), a cause for which she was arrested in 1907 near Boston, Massachusetts. Of course, she had had to create her own makeshift suits for some time in order to be competitive in the water and she eventually designed her own line of swimwear, the first modern swimwear for women. For many years, “Kellerman” was a generic name for any one-piece swimsuit.

Ever the performer, Kellerman ended up in Hollywood, where she was the first actress to appear nude in a major studio production, A Daughter of the Gods (now considered a “lost film”). Many of her films had aquatic themes and she performed her own stunts in them. The only known surviving feature film of Kellerman’s is Venus of the South Seas (1924), which was restored by the Library of Congress in 2004. Kellerman herself was later portrayed on screen by that other famous bathing beauty—Esther Williams—in Million Dollar Mermaid (1952). Kellerman remained in California for much of her life, owning a health food store in Long Beach (she was a lifelong vegetarian). She also wrote numerous books on health, natural beauty, and fitness, including How to Swim in 1918 and Physical Beauty: How to Keep It in 1919.

Kellerman in her one-piece bathing suit circa 1900 (left) and diving in one of her sequined mermaid costumes (right)

Mary Phelps Jacob (1891–1970)
Mary Phelps Jacob, nicknamed Polly as a girl and later also known as Caresse Crosby, was the first person to receive a patent for the modern bra. But that event is almost a footnote to the rest of her life, which was absolutely incredible.

Jacob was born into a New York society family that dated back to the earliest colonial days in New England. On her father’s side, her family tree included both Robert Fulton, developer of the steamboat, and William Bradford, the first governor of Plymouth Colony. Compared to many of her friends, her family was not rich, but they lived incredibly well. Polly attended Miss Chapin’s School in New York and then Rosemary Hall, a boarding school in Connecticut. It was this lifestyle that led to her invention when, in 1910, at the age of 19, she was preparing to attend one of many debutante balls and realized her corset poked out from under her sheer, plunging gown. She decided to stitch together a makeshift undergarment of handkerchiefs and ribbon and wore that instead. Immediately, her friends all wanted one. When she finally received a request from a stranger, she knew this might be a viable business. Jacob filed for and was granted a patent for a “backless brassiere” in 1914. Although versions of brassieres had existed previously, what was unique about Jacob’s version was that it was easily adapted to women of different sizes and could withstand a variety of movements. Most importantly, it was comfortable. Amirite, ladies?

Soon after filing for her patent, Jacob married Dick Peabody, a wealthy Bostonian blue-blood. He went off to war and then eventually became a professional drunkard, so Polly decided to open her own business and founded the Fashion Form Brassiere Company in Boston in 1920. Also in 1920, Polly met Harry Crosby and proceeded to have a very public fling with him, scandalizing society. She divorced two years later and married Harry, just about the time she began manufacturing her wireless bra. Sadly, Harry had nothing but disdain for industry and persuaded Polly to close the business. She later sold the patent to the Warner Brothers Corset Company for $1500 (approximately $22,000 in today’s dollars). Warner went on to earn more than $15 million from the patent over the next few decades.

I can’t say the brassiere will ever take as great a place in history as the steamboat, but I did invent it.

Immediately after their marriage, the couple moved to Europe where they became members of the so-called Lost Generation, living off of Harry’s generous trust fund (among other connections, J.P. Morgan was Harry’s godfather). The couple embraced a glamorous and reckless lifestyle, with an open marriage and frequent drug use. In 1924, Harry urged Polly to change her name, suggesting Clytoris, but settling for Caresse. (Dodged a bullet there, Polly.) In 1925, the couple opened a publishing house named after their pet whippet, Narcisse Noir (pictured below). Later, they rechristened the business Black Sun Press, publishing exquisitely crafted books by the likes of James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, D.H. Lawrence, and Ezra Pound.

In 1929, Harry died as part of either a double suicide or murder-suicide with one of his mistresses. And, yes, Harry was the one suspected of murder. Nevertheless, Caresse continued to run Black Sun Press until 1936, although she went back to using her birth name of Mary and was subsequently known as Mary Caresse Crosby. In 1937, she returned to the States and married the much-younger Selbert Young. She also ghost-wrote pornography for Henry Miller on the side, because why not. After divorcing Young in 1941, Crosby moved to Washington, DC and opened a modern art gallery, because why not. She eventually moved to Greece, where she purchased a castle north of Rome and turned it into an artists’ colony. I mean, damn.

Jacobs with her pet whippet circa 1924 alongside her 1914 patent

To read more about these incredible women:

  • Émile Langlade, Rose Bertin: The Creator of Fashion at the Court of Marie Antoinette (1908)
  • Caroline Weber, Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution (2006)
  • Emily Gibson with Barbara Firth, The Original Million Dollar Mermaid: The Annette Kellerman Story (2005)
  • Caresse Crosby, The Passionate Years (1953)
  • Linda Hamalian, The Cramoisy Queen: A Life of Caresse Crosby (2005)

Podcast and television episodes:
Stuff You Missed in History Class: Rose Bertin
Stuff You Missed in History Class: Annette Kellerman
History Chicks: Four Inventors
Drunk History: Inventing the Bra

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
Strange Bedfellows
A Mind at (House)Work
Looking Good; Feeling Good

And once again I seem to have reached the end of Women’s History Month without writing about Zenobia. I guess you’ll just have to tune in next year—same month, same place—when I will absolutely, positively, look at warrior queens. So help me, Lakshmibai.

Women 101—Looking Good; Feeling Good


In this second post on female entrepreneurs, we look at the world of health and beauty. I’ve decided to save fashion for another day because a couple of these women were just so fascinating they merited a little more space.

Potent Potables

Lydia E. Pinkham (1819–1883)
Lydia Pinkham, née Estes, was born into an extremely progressive Quaker family in the factory town of Lynn, Massachusetts. Pinkham’s father had become wealthy through shrewd real estate deals and Lydia was educated at the Lynn Academy and was a schoolteacher before her marriage. The family was strongly abolitionist and Lydia herself joined the Lynn Female Anti-Slavery Society as a teenager. In 1843, she married a shoe manufacturer and all-around failure of a businessman and real estate speculator, Isaac Pinkham. They would go on to have four children who all eventually became involved in the family business.

What was that business you ask? Well, Lydia brewed a home remedy for “female complaints” that became very popular with her neighbors, to whom she gave it away freely. When the family entered on hard times after the Panic of 1873, they decided to try to create a business out of her hobby. Eventually, production of the home brew was in a factory and Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound became one of the best known patent medicines of the nineteenth century. Of course, this isn’t really surprising when you consider that medical treatment for menstrual pain, infertility, and other issues was practically non-existent. The original formula contained pleurisy root, life root, fenugreek, unicorn root, black cohosh, and a heck of a lot of alcohol. Although this might seem like quackery, the ingredients were consistent with the herbal knowledge of the day and, when the FDA tested the product, they found it an effective uterine medicine and that some of the herbs provided estrogen treatment. However, having to label the alcohol content starting in 1906 did take the shine off of the rose, though the product proved to be rather successful during prohibition. Go figure.

There is a baby in every bottle.

—tagline for Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound

In addition to creating the brew, Lydia herself proved to be incredible marketer, putting herself on the label (the first time a woman’s likeness was used in advertising), writing most of the ad copy, keeping records on customers and their medical complaints, responding to everyone that wrote to her, and discussing frankly the “taboo” subjects of menstruation and menopause (the company’s first piece of advertising was a four-page “Guide for Women” pamphlet). As mentioned, she had help in this from her family, who continued the letter-writing tradition even after her death in 1883. At that time, her “female tonic” was grossing $300,000 annually—in 1925, annual profits peaked at $3.8 million. Mrs. Lydia Pinkham’s Medicine Company continued until 1968, when it was sold to Cooper Laboratories in Pleasanton, California. Pills and liquids based off Pinkham’s original vegetable compound recipe are still available in pharmacies. Sadly, they do not contain any alcohol.

Shocking but true, drinking an almost 40-proof “female tonic” can help with the annoying symptoms of “middle age”!

Good Hair Days

Annie Turnbo Malone (1869–1957)
I only discovered the story of Annie Turnbo Malone in researching Madam C.J. Walker; apparently, this is a common occurrence (see below). While not as strong in marketing and self-promotion as some other women I discuss in this post, Malone nevertheless deserves her place here as one of the pioneers of the beauty business. Malone, née Turnbo, developed an interest in chemistry in high school in Illinois and began experimenting with hair styling and hair-care products, which at the time could be extremely damaging to the hair and scalp. She soon developed and manufactured her own line of hair straighteners and stimulants specifically for black women, in particular the “Wonderful Hair Grower,” which she demonstrated and sold door to door. In 1902, Malone moved to St. Louis, Missouri, hired and trained three assistants, and continued to sell her products door to door, which was really the only distribution system available to her as a black woman. During the 1904 World’s Fair, Malone opened her first retail outlet. In 1906, she trademarked her “Poro” product line and began to travel further and further afield to demonstrate her products, particularly in the South. Wherever she went, she hired and trained local sales agents and by 1910 had expanded nationally.

In 1918, she built Poro College, a complex that included her business headquarters, manufacturing and laboratories, training and teaching facilities, and even a gymnasium, chapel, and theater. It is estimated that by the mid-1920s, she was worth $14 million. She donated large sums to various charities including $25,000 each to Howard University, the local YMCA, and the Tuskegee Institute. Unfortunately, the 1920s also resulted in a power struggle over control of the business between Annie and her second husband, Aaron Malone, whom she had married in 1914. In 1927, when Aaron filed for divorce, he demanded half, claiming he was responsible for the contracts that led to her success. (Dude, get over yourself, she was already a millionaire by the time you married her.) While Aaron had many local black leaders and politicians on his side, Annie had the support of Poro workers, church leaders, and Mary McLeod Bethune and the National Association of Colored Women. Guess who won? Don’t underestimate black women, people.

Annie Turnbo Malone in 1927 alongside a recruitment ad for Poro College

In 1930, Malone moved her business to Chicago, Illinois, buying up an entire city block. Regrettably, even though she had regained sole ownership of her company, her financial troubles became much more severe there than the $200,000 settlement she ended up giving Aaron back in St. Louis. First, Annie was sued by a former employee and had to sell her St. Louis property to settle the case. Then, she was taken to court by the government for unpaid real estate and excise taxes (hair care was classed as a “luxury” good) amounting to $100,000. In 1951, the government took control of Poro and sold most of the property. This business failure is probably a key reason that Malone is less well known today than her most famous employee, Madam C.J. Walker. Still, she remains present in the memory of St. Louis, especially through the Annie Malone Children and Family Service Center, an orphanage she helped build in the 1920s and supported for much of her life as a member of the executive board.

Sarah Breedlove (aka Madam C.J. Walker) (1867–1919)
Like Lydia Pinkham, Madam C.J. Walker is another woman who put herself on the label to great success. Although she was not the country’s first black millionaire as often claimed,* she is nevertheless a great rags-to-riches story. Born to parents who had been enslaved on the Louisiana plantation of Robert W. Burney, Sarah Breedlove was the last of six children, but the first in the family to be born “free” (after the Emancipation Proclamation). Orphaned at a young age, she moved to Vicksburg, Mississippi, and lived with her married older sister, Louvenia, until her own marriage at the age of fourteen. Sarah had one daughter, Lelia, with her first husband (she would go on to marry and divorce two more times) before becoming a widow at twenty in 1887.

Soon after, she moved with Lelia to St. Louis, Missouri, where her brothers already lived. There, Sarah worked as a live-in maid, leaving her daughter in an orphanage and visiting her once a week during her half-day off. Once she had saved enough money, she got her own apartment, recovered her daughter, and started a laundry business. Sarah received a lot of support and advice from the community at her church, the St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church, which was known nationally for their missionary work. During the 1904 World’s Fair, this church hosted a delegation from the National Association of Colored Women and so Sarah met and was inspired by numerous activists on the national scene. It was at this time that she began selling hair-care products on commission for Annie Turnbo Malone, who would later become a fierce rival—an unsurprising development when you consider that Breedlove developed her own product line, which “came to her in a dream” while selling a very similar product. Curious…

In 1905, Sarah again followed in the wake of one her brothers, this time moving to Denver, Colorado. There she continued selling on commission, but, following her marriage to Charles Walker, a newspaper ad man she had known in St. Louis, she decided to start her own hair-care business under the name Madam C.J. Walker. Sarah now sold her own products door to door and soon was traveling all over the South with her husband to promote the business, leaving Lelia in charge of operations in Denver. In 1908, the family relocated to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where they established Lelia College, a school to train other “hair culturalists” in the Walker System—a system of hair maintenance that included shampoo, a hair growth pomade, and hot irons and combs.** In 1910, the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company established its headquarters in Indianapolis, Indiana. In addition to a factory and research laboratory, the compound included a hair salon and beauty school to train sales agents. This is when the business really began to grow and Madam C.J. Walker became well known through her advertisements, which used her own likeness to show the results of using her products. Echoing those who had helped inspire her back in St. Louis, Walker also used her business acumen and experience to lift up others, showing the several thousand women in her employ how to budget, build their own businesses, and become financially independent.

Lifting as We Climb

—motto of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs

At this point, Walker really moves into her activist and philanthropist phase, traveling the country and telling her story. In 1913, she was a keynote speaker at the annual gathering of the National Negro Business League, a speaking opportunity that had been denied to her the year before by President Booker T. Washington (though, as you can see by the quotation below, Walker found a way to drop the mic anyway). Washington had been rebuffing Walker for some time, both because she was a woman and because he believed her products were helping to “whitewash” black women.** However, he couldn’t continue to deny her once her impromptu speech proved to be the hit of the conference.

Surely, you are not going to shut the door in my face. I am a woman who came from the cotton fields of the South. From there I was promoted to the washtub. From there, I was promoted to the cook kitchen. And from there, I promoted myself. I promoted myself into the business of manufacturing hair goods and preparations. I have built my own factory on my own ground.

—Madam C.J. Walker to Booker T. Washington and the National Negro Business League in 1912, after rising from her seat to speak to the annual gathering

Also in 1913, Walker began investing in New York real estate when Lelia decided to move to Harlem. Walker followed her daughter three years later and commissioned Vertner Tandy, the first licensed black architect in New York City, to build her a magnificent mansion in Westchester County on the Hudson River. With thirty-four rooms, Villa Lewaro (from the first letters of Lelia Walker Robinson’s name) became an important social and intellectual gathering place for the black community.

Walker’s philanthropy took a number of forms: She was a patron of the arts, educational establishments, and numerous churches and orphanages, as well as the YMCA, the Tuskegee Institute, and the NAACP. At the time of her death in 1919, her estate was estimated at $600,000 and her will left two-thirds of her company’s future net profits to charity. Her daughter, who shortly thereafter changed her name to A’Lelia, became president of the company. A’Lelia also continued her mother’s tradition of supporting the arts, especially members of the Harlem Renaissance. Walker’s legacy continues today in the form of a Sephora line of products named in her honor and a soon-to-be-on-a-television-screen-near-you series starring Octavia Spencer.

The Beauty Biz

Helena Rubinstein (1872–1965)
Helena Rubinstein was born in Kraków, but left on her own to emigrate to Australia at the age of twenty-four. It is not exactly clear why she did this, she may have had a falling out with her immediate family, but she arrived with very little money or English. She did, however, have uncles, and initially settled with them in western Victoria, an area known for its sheep and dairy farming. This would prove to be the key to her later success since it is here that she discovered lanolin, a wax that is secreted from the glands of sheep to protect their wool and skin from the climate. A lover of beauty creams and having gorgeous skin, Rubinstein began experimenting with scents and perfecting a face cream that didn’t smell as bad as lanolin apparently does. She eventually moved to Melbourne where she raised the funds to open a salon and launch Valaze, a “skin food” made with “rare herbs from the Carpathian Mountains” by Dr. Lykuski, a “European skin specialist”—I guess Helena Rubinstein didn’t just invent skin creams. [Side note: Are you seeing a theme here? These women are all kick-ass marketers.]

Regardless of where the product came from, it flew off the shelves and soon Rubinstein was opening salons in Sydney (1907), London (1908), and Paris (1909). It was in London that she met her husband, American journalist Edward Titus. At the outbreak of World War I, she moved with her husband to New York, where she opened a salon in 1915. Because she was Jewish, she could not get retail space directly on Fifth Avenue and had to open around the corner on 49th Street. Nevertheless, her business continued to be an incredible success and, in a stunning moment of foresight, she sold the American business to Lehman Brothers in 1928 for over $7 million dollars. After the stock market crash in 1929 and the arrival of the Great Depression, she bought it back for less than $1 million and continued to expand throughout the United States. Well played, Helena, well played.

Helena Rubinstein mixing potions in her Paris laboratory in 1939

Florence Nightingale Graham (aka Elizabeth Arden) (1878–1966)
Florence Nightingale Graham, founder of the cosmetics empire Elizabeth Arden, was born and grew up in Ontario, Canada, but in her late 20s decided to move and join her elder brother in New York City. She got a job working as a bookkeeper for the E.R. Squibb Pharmaceuticals Company and spent off hours learning about skin care in their laboratory. She then changed jobs and worked as a beauty “culturist” or a “treatment girl” for Eleanor Adair. In 1909, she formed a partnership with Elizabeth Hubbard, but their business dissolved less than a year after it started. However, Graham decided to keep the name Elizabeth (supposedly to save money on signage), adding the last name Arden in the process. She would use both names throughout her life.

In 1910, Elizabeth Arden opened her first “Red Door” salon on Fifth Avenue. In 1912, she went to France to learn new salon techniques and treatments and came back with a whole new collection of rouges and powders. In fact, Arden is one of the beauty pioneers responsible for making make-up respectable, as it had often been seen as something vulgar, used only by the lower classes, especially actresses and prostitutes. This development was certainly aided and abetted by the rising popularity of cinema, which required a subtler form of make-up than did the stage. Soon Arden began to expand her operations internationally and by 1929 had opened salons across the United States and Europe. In 1934, she opened the first “destination spa” in the United States, in the Belgrade Lakes area of Maine. [Side note: I spent the summer after high school there working as a housekeeper on a tiny island in Great Pond at what can only be described as a summer colony for WASPs. Good times.]

Florence Nightingale Graham/Elizabeth Arden, circa 1930

To read more about these incredible women:

  • Sarah Stage, Female Complaints: Lydia Pinkham and the Business of Women’s Medicine (1979)
  • Shomari Wills, Black Fortunes: The Story of the First Six African Americans Who Escaped Slavery and Became Millionaires (2018)
  • A’Lelia Perry Bundles, On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker (2001)
  • Tananarive Due, The Black Rose: The Dramatic Story of Madam C.J. Walker, America’s First Black Female Millionaire (2000) (historical fiction)
  • Kathy Peiss, Hope in a Jar: The Making of America’s Beauty Culture (1998)
  • Lindy Woodhead, War Paint: Madame Helena Rubinstein and Miss Elizabeth Arden: Their Lives, Their Times, Their Rivalry (2003)

Podcast episodes:
History Chicks: Lydia Pinkham
Bowery Boys: Madam C.J. Walker: Harlem’s Hair Care Millionaire
History Chicks: Madam C.J. Walker
Stuff You Missed in History Class: Sarah Breedlove Walker & Sarah Rector: Who was America’s First Black Millionairess?
Bowery Boys: The Beauty Bosses of Fifth Avenue

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
Strange Bedfellows
A Mind at (House)Work

For the next post in this series, see Fashion Forward.

*For more on the question, see the Stuff You Missed in History Class podcast above as well as the new book Black Fortunes, which tells the tale of six other millionaires who came before Walker, including Mary Ellen Pleasant and Annie Turnbo Malone.
**I want to note here that I really admire what Annie Turnbo Malone and Madam C.J. Walker achieved, which is why I have included them in this post, but I do know that “good hair” is a controversial topic in the black community and so I apologize in advance if I have offended anyone by celebrating these female entrepreneurs.

Women 101—A Mind at (House)Work


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 the rest 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, “Mother of Civil Rights in California”

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.

Josephine Cochrane’s 1886 patent

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 and Frank Gilbreth with their children circa 1924

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!

Myrna Loy and Clifton Webb star in Cheaper by the Dozen

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)

Podcast episodes:
History Chicks: Four Inventors
HerStory: Ida Annah Ryan
History Chicks: Lillian Gilbreth

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
Strange Bedfellows

For the next post in this series, see Looking Good; Feeling Good.