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Absent of any discoverable photos, Ellen Elgin might have been completely unknown and written out of the history books as an inventor if not for her testimony in an 1890 Washington, D.C. periodical The Woman Inventor, the first publication of its kind devoted entirely to women inventors.
Clean, dry clothes are normal for most privileged people in today’s world but it wasn’t always this way.
Ellen Eglin worked smarter—not harder
Born in Washington, D.C. in 1849, Elgin worked as a clerk in the census office locally and later worked as a housekeeper and washwoman during a time when clothing was washed by hand and hung outdoors to dry.
Wringing the water from garments and bedding was often slow, grinding work, making the days long, and Eglin knew there was a better way to perform the same task.
Elgin would go on to invent 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.
Though it would release in August 1888 to “great financial success”, the book Black Stars: African American Women Scientists and Inventors points out, a White agent bought the rights of her invention for only $18.
Elgin recognized her worth even as Whites refused
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.
Like many Black inventors of the time, Elgin believed that White people would not use the machine if they knew it was invented by a Black woman, so in turn they oftentimes hired White representatives to file their patents to avoid automatic denial via discrimination.
For the April 1890 issue of The Woman Inventor — a short-lived magazine that was produced by feminist reformer Charlotte Smith — a reporter asked Eglin why she sold the rights of the invention for so little. She said:
You know 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 to the market, that is the only reason.
(Source: New Scientist May 24, 1984 p. 11).
Eglin never received public recognition nor financial gain for introducing a universally applied technological invention that revolutionized the process of washing clothes.
At the time, she told The Woman Inventor that she was working on another invention and desired to patent it in her name so that it will be known as a Black woman’s invention:
I am working on another invention and have money to push it after the patent is issued to me, and the invention will be known as a black woman’s. I am looking forward to exhibiting the model at the Women’s International Industrial Inventors Congress to which woman are invited to participate regardless of color lines.
(Source: The Inventive Spirit of African Americans p.128).
Though she reportedly received the support of Charlotte Smith for her patent application and was invited to an inventors’ reception given by President William Henry Harrison, there are no records available about Elgin’s second invention and the patent.
Although technology has improved since the late 1800s with the invention of the washing machine and dryer, Ellen Elgin’s concept is still widely seen today in devices such as mop buckets which feature a wringer to squeeze excess water.
Information in this article was obtained via Medium, The Smithsonian, and Post News Group.