Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Last week I wrote about the sewing machine patent wars between Elias Howe and Isaac Singer. As I wrote that blog article, it occurred to me that the people who invented the first sewing machines were men, yet now it seems mostly women use them (there were no men in my quilting class). Then I was heartened to discover that a woman named Helen Augusta Blanchard developed techniques for zigzag stitching and overseaming.

Helen Blanchard was born in Portland, Maine on October 25, 1840, although that date isn’t certain. She had five siblings. Her father was a well-to-do ship-owner and businessman who suffered financial losses in the business panic of 1866. That resulted in the loss of the family homestead. He died leaving the family in financial trouble.

Personal details about Helen Blanchard’s private life are sketchy, but as far as I can determine, in the late 1970s or early 1880s, she established the Blanchard Overseaming Company to market her inventions. Her first invention was the over-seam of the long stitch in 1873. In 1880 she invented the sewing and trimming seam, and in the same year the zigzag stitch for hat.

She also founded the Blanchard Hosiery Machine Company in 1882. She moved to New York in the early 1890s, and continued to patent a variety of inventions, including a pencil sharpener and a hat sewing machine.

When I discover accomplished people like Helen Blanchard, I want to know what made them tick. What gave them the drive to dream and then take it a step further and make it real? Is it upbringing? Genes? Necessity? And in this case, what gave Helen the courage to invent and patent her inventions in an era when women couldn’t even vote?

Helen profited from her commercial ventures and was able to buy back the family homestead in Portland that her father lost so many years before. That must have been gratifying for a woman like her, and it makes me wonder if the family’s losses so early in her life left a mark on her—perhaps the family lost some of their social standing when her father lost so much. I can only speculate. At any rate, she returned to live on the family homestead in 1901. She continued to patent inventions until she suffered a stroke in 1916. She died in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1922 and is buried in the family plot in Portland.

One of her machines (1873) is on display today in the Smithsonian's Museum of American History.

If any of our readers have more information about this interesting woman, I’d love to hear from you!

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