Popular Science Monthly/Volume 47/May 1895/Woman as an Inventor and Manufacturer

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THE question has been seriously raised whether woman is capable of important achievements as an inventor, and an opinion actually exists and is held in good faith by some otherwise intelligent persons that she is not. The Patent-Office records have been searched to show that woman's modern work in inventive art has been insignificant; and occasionally, when some woman's invention is announced, it is treated as something unusual and very remarkable. A perusal of Dr. O. T. Mason's narrative of Woman's Share in Primitive Culture should convince the unprejudiced reader that this is a most shallow view to take of the matter. In that book she is shown to be the earliest inventor, and is proved in numberless cases to be the author from the most ancient times of the most important inventions and those which have contributed most to human well-being.

From the primitive age when the division of duties was first made between man and woman (somewhat roughly drawn, it is true, as the rudeness of the then existing conditions compelled) but substantially along the lines it has followed among all peoples who labor, woman's ingenuity has been an important element of progress. As the food-bringer, which is the character under which Dr. Mason first presents her, "to feed the flock under her immediate care, woman had to become an inventor, and it is in this activity of her mind that she is specially interesting here. The hen scratches for her chicks all day long because Nature has furnished her hoes and rakes and cutting apparatus upon her body. But here stands a creature on the edge of time who had to create the implements of such industry." In the search for food materials she first appears as taking fruits and other parts of plants that are ready for consumption without further preparation. Next she took a stick and carrying basket and sought out roots and other parts that might be prepared by roasting or perhaps by boiling with hot stones. "On her third journey she gathered seeds of all kinds, but especially the seeds of grasses, which at her hand were to undergo a multitude of transformations. These had to be broken up or ground, and called for the devising of grinding apparatus. Wherever the tribes went in the early days women found out by and by the great staple productions that

Fig. 1—The Basket-maker—California Woman at Work. (After Henshaw.)

were to be their chief reliance; and "the whole industrial life of woman is built up around these staples. From the first journey on foot to procure the raw materials until the food is served and eaten there is a line of trades that are continuous and that are born of the environment."

The five sources of information respecting primitive woman's activities are found in history, which records the things of pristine Fig. 2.—The Primitive Loom Weaver—Navajo Woman, Arizona. (After Matthews.) culture that lingered three or four thousand years ago; language, which has crystallized expressions descriptive of early conditions; archaeology, which recovers the things they did before there was any history; folklore, a perpetual record of the most ancient occupations and customs; and living tribes that have stood still during all the ages. The variety of occupations in which primitive woman displays her genius is illustrated in a description quoted from Im Thurn of the day's work of a Carib woman in British Guiana, in which she is seen performing the parts of a "mother, butcher, cook, beast of burden, fire maker and tender, miller, stonecutter (stone-griddle maker), most delicate and ingenious weaver, engineer (devising a mechanical press and sieve in one woven bag and using a lever of the third kind), baker, and preserver of food. Add to this her function of brewer, and you have no mean collection of primitive industries performed by one little body, all of which underlie occupations which in our day involve the outlay of millions of dollars and the co-operation of thousands of men."

Fig. 3.—Eskimo "Scraper," made to fit the Woman's Hand. (After Mason.)

"Suppose a certain kind of raw material to abound in any area or country; you may be sure that savage women searched it out and developed it in their crude way. Furthermore, the peculiar qualities and idiosyncrasies of each substance suggest and demand a certain treatment. Women of the lowest grades of culture have not been slow in discovering this; so that between them and the natural product there has been a kind of understanding or co-operation leading to local styles. If these women were moved far away, they carried oftentimes these processes with them and plied their old trade upon such strange materials as they discovered in the new home." So negro women brought basket-making from Africa to America and taught it to the Indians.

Subsidiary to the weaving and basket-making practiced by women in savagery are spinning, netting, looping, braiding, sewing, and embroidery. Bark-cloth weaving is practiced by women in the tropics all round the world. "Each and all of these require tools which the workwomen must fashion for themselves. Fig. 4.—Eskimo Fat Scraper of Reindeer Antler and Rawhide. (After Mason.) And, though the earth had the raw materials in abundance, it did not yield them without a search which would do honor to the manufacturers of our day.... Aboriginal woman's basketry excites the admiration of all lovers of fine work. It is difficult to say which receives the most praise—the forms, the coloring, the patterns, or the delicacy of manipulation. Primarily, her basketry divides itself into two

sorts of types—the woven and the sewed, the former built up on a warp, the latter produced by the continuous stitching of a coil. Of these two main classes there are many subclasses, which have been necessitated by the nature of the material which the fabricator has at her hands, and by the uses to which the products have to be put."

Weaving is the climax of the textile industry; and "among all the types of modern savagery—American, negroid, and Malayo-Polynesian—intricate processes of weaving were in vogue before they were approached by the white race." In comparison with the complex and world-embracing activity of modern weaving and commerce, "how simple the process in savagery! The women there go to the fields or to the animals for the fiber, or hair, or wool. They transport the material on their backs, in carrying frames and apparatus that they themselves have made, and prepare it... to be woven, or sewed, or embroidered. They make up the bag, or mat, or garment, or sail of a whole piece, and wear it out in use, the same woman in each case following the material from the cradle to the grave." The subsidiary textile arts are of much importance in savagery, and they are of great antiquity, remains having been found in very old deposits.

In her tanning and skin-dressing work the savage woman's problem was to remove the dermis from the hide, and leave the hair adhering to the epidermis, with only a thin portion of the true skin. If the work were creditably done, the surface of the robe, "frequently more than thirty square feet in extent, had to be uniform in thickness throughout, and she should not cut through

Fig. 5.—Eskimo Fat Scraper of Walrus Ivory, made to fit the Fingers. (After Mason.)

the epidermis once. The whole must be as pliable, too, as a woolen blanket: the problem was to reduce a hide of varying thickness and twice too thick everywhere to a robe of uniform thickness throughout without once cutting through the outer part of the skin. Her tools for this varied with the locality. The Eskimo women scrape off the fat with a special tool made of walrus ivory or bone and plane down the dermis with a stone scraper. The Indian women cut off bits of meat and fat and remove the dermis with a hoe or adze. In the good old days of savagery the Eskimo woman made her fat scraper of walrus ivory or antler; her skin scraper was of flinty stone set in a handle of ivory, wood, or horn, whichever material was easiest to procure. But later on, it may be, the whalers helped her with steel tools. The Indian woman had three tools—to wit: the stone knife for cutting away the flesh; Fig. 6.—Making Coiled Ware in Basket Bowl. (After Cushing.) the hoe-shaped scraper for splitting the skin; and the grainer, a hoe or chisel-like tool with serrated edge to roughen up the inner side of the robe and give it flexibility. Besides these, both Eskimo and Indian had hands and feet and teeth for pulling and pounding and breaking the grain. They had also a wonderful supply of pride in their work, and love of applause, which kept them up to the mark of doing the best that could be done with their, resources." The scraper is the oldest instrument of any craft in the world. The Indian women of Montana still receive their trade from their mothers, and they, in turn, were taught by theirs in unbroken succession since the Fig. 7.—Basket Bowl as Base Mold for Large Vessel, showing also the Smoothing Process after Coiling. (After Cushing.) birth of the human species. With the scraper the hair was removed, when that was desired, after having been loosened by exposure to chemical treatment with quicklime, or by a process of fermentation. The methods of preparation corresponded with the purposes to which the skin was to be applied, and these were various. "The tailoring of savage women, especially that of the North American women, is most interesting. While the weavers in the south were making blankets and serapes in the whole piece, never cutting their goods, the tailors north of the Mexican border were excellent cutters. For scissors they used the woman's knife, called ula by the Eskimos, a blade of chert or other rock, crescent-shaped on the outer edge, and a most excellent device for cutting skin without marring the hair. Scissors would be useless in this connection, for they would shear the hair as well as the hide and make an ugly seam. In the fitting of garments these primitive Fig. 8.—California Cradle Frame. (After Mason.) tailors anticipated the long list of terms, such as puckering, gathering, inserting gores, and the like. For tucks in their more beautiful dresses they inserted band after band of the skins of different animals, bits from different parts of the same hide, and strips of bare hide ornamented by quill-work. Tufts of feathers or long hair, pendants of shell, hoof, teeth, or bone—in short, all objects of comely shape and pretty color and proper size—were gathered into the costumes of men and children as well as into their own." The reticule, the tobacco bag, the traveling case, the bandbox, and the packing trunk all exist among savages, and in North America were made by women, chiefly from the hides of animals.

The potter's art may be seen in its pristine simplicity in the soapstone or earthen lamp and stove of the Eskimo, and in the arid regions of New Mexico and Arizona, as well as in South America, Africa, and New Guinea; and it is woman that carries it on. "In the Southwestern States of our Union women have, from time immemorial, practiced the art of pottery with the greatest success. There is no reason to believe that their present methods and tools and products are different at all from what they were a thousand years ago.... The women go forth to the mesa, where the proper layers of clay are exposed, and quarry the raw material. To do this, one would say they ought to be good mineralogists and skillful engineers. They also gather from the sediment of the streams most excellent clay for their paste." If the potter-woman does not find this excellent paste, she gathers and carries home on her back the clay quarried from the mesa; and in doing this she becomes a pack-woman. She washes the clay, lets the gravel and worthless material sink or float, decants the liquid, and allows the fine aluminous earth to settle. "Though the term 'specific gravity' was unknown to her, she seems to have seized upon this principle in order to gather out the elements desired. This fine paste will not make pottery; it will crack badly in drying and baking. But our ceramic worker is equal to the occasion, and long ago had discovered, as every archaeologist knows, that sand or some other tempering material must be added. The oldest fragments yet discovered reveal in their texture grains of sand, put there by Nature or by the potter, bits of pulverized shells, or the remains of old pots ground fine and worked over into new vessels." She sorts material for coarser and for finer ware, turns it with her hand, guided by her eye, molds it around or within some object to give it shape, using gourds, nets, or baskets for the purpose, whose forms and peculiar markings are thus preserved, and arrives at the stage of

Fig. 9.—Eskimo Mothers. (After Healy.)

making pottery like basketry, for which she rolls out a slender cylinder of prepared paste, and builds her vessel by coiling this cylinder around the form. The evolution of form in this Pueblo ware, by which a flat disk becomes a bowl, and from that are derived various forms of bottles and vases, has been well studied by Mr. Frank Cushing.

"From woman's back to the car and the stately ship" is the history of the carrier's art; and woman "was primarily the only creature that transformed Nature to produce an apparatus for the carrying of burdens.... Many other industries were created, stimulated, and modified by this carrying trade. The member of pristine society who went to the fields to gather nuts and seeds and fruit must necessarily have brought them home. Hence the burden-bearer must be a basket-maker, and the pack-woman is a patron of husbandry and of the textile art. Clay and fuel must be brought to make pottery, and pottery, in turn, has to be shaped to carry water and food; so the potter and the carrier are sisters. It can not fail to be interesting to know how ingeniously these Fig. 10.—The Knapsack in Woman's Work—German Peasant Woman. early passenger cars were constructed." The builders were strictly scientific in their methods, in that they ingeniously adapted structure to function and environment. To the Eskimo mother the great consideration is to protect the child from the cold. "So she makes a baby carriage of her hood, and her offspring, when she takes it abroad or when she is on a journey, is safely ensconced between the soft fur and the mother's warm neck. All the American tribes used a papoose frame of some sort." The distinguishing marks of this apparatus were the back, the sides, the lashing, the bed, the pillow, the covering, the awning, the decoration. All these were present in some form, but in each stock, and especially in each natural-history region, there were just such variations as were necessary and proper. In Canada the cradle was made of birch bark and the bed was of the finest fur. In the coast region of British Columbia and southward little arklike troughs were excavated as the boats were, and beds and pillows and wrappings of the finest shredded cedar bark took the place of furs. Farther south still, as the climate became milder, the ark gave place to a little rack or gridiron of osier, sumac, or reed, and the face of the child was shaded from the sun by a delicate awning. Across the Rocky Mountains, in the land of the buffalo, the papoose frame looks like a great shoe lashed to an inverted trellis or ladder, and nowadays the whole surface is covered with embroidered beadwork. It matters not where we travel within the limits assigned on the western continent, the primitive passenger car was exactly suited to the meteorological and other conditions." This is one class of devices that women have contrived for carrying precious

Fig. 11.—Florentine Wood Gatherers. (After Gioli.)

burdens. They are also in all savage lands, and in some civilized, the bearers of loads of a more common and grosser sort, and for these they have invented a variety of appliances, adapted to different positions and different kinds of loads: cushions for placing the burden on the head; cords or straps for supporting it from the head while it is carried on the shoulder or the back. "Away down in Arizona hay is delivered at the agency by Mojave Indian women, who go out and cut with common house knives the 'grama grass' put it up in immense sheaves, and bring it to the agency on their backs," or rather shoulders, a sheaf of hay sticking from each end of a pole that rests on the shoulders, and knapsack contrivances of different kinds. We generally suppose that the knapsack belongs to soldiers and schoolboys; but "if you will get up early some morning and walk around the busy portions of a German city, you will see upon a box or table a cylindrical basket, holding half a bushel, more or less, with the sticks of the frame projecting an inch or two downward from the bottom, and two broad straps fastened at one end to the rim of the basket and having eyelets or loops at the loose ends. Presently you will see a woman back up to the basket, draw the straps over her shoulders, and pass the ends backward around the projecting frame sticks below. She is now hitched up and may walk off with such load as the basket may contain. Perhaps this is older than the knapsack." Women are carriers, too, in France, and a picture by Gioli, exhibited at Venice in 1887, shows that in Italy, also, that work has not been taken off from her.

"It is not enough, in speaking of savage women, to say that they, as a class, do this or that. It should also be asked how many of these are performed by one woman—in short, by every woman. Recalling what was previously said about the user of an implement having to be the maker of it, one sees to what a diversity of occupations this would naturally lead. . . . It is not enough to say in any case, as we have seen, that she was food-bringer, weaver, skin-dresser, potter, or beast of burden. This view of her is absolutely misleading. It is not sufficient to say that the modern lucrative employments originated with her. We are bound to keep in mind that each woman was all of these. As in the animal world one part of the body performs many functions, in the social world one woman is mistress of many cares. The diversification of duties in well-regulated houses among the civilized nations produces the matron. The savage woman is really the ancestress and prototype of the modern housewife, and not of our factory specialists."

Savage woman next appears on the scene as an artist; and her originality and skill in this line are illustrated in every piece of pottery and every basket; in decorative work of all kinds, and in costumes in a thousand designs of form and color, all of which the maker had to invent, and furthermore to find means and instruments for producing them.

In the aspects of a linguist, the founder of society, and the patron of religion, in all of which Mr. Mason exhibits woman as a leader, we have not space to follow him. We therefore leave her here, as the founder of some of our most useful material arts.

  1. Woman's Share in Primitive Culture. By Otis Tufton Mason. Anthropological Series, No. 1. New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1894.