An Archive Experience: patents, handwriting and red tape

The last few weeks I have been working as a research assistant focusing on patents specifically – literature on patents, patent studies, the history of patenting. Most of my time was spent in the British Library Patent Archive searching for patents of women’s cycle wear.

The archive is a peculiar place, filled with the smell of old books, wonderfully helpful people and a lot of red tape. My search started trying to find all the British patents for women’s cycle wear sealed (I learned that one seals a patent) between 1885 and 1900. After unsuccessfully wrestling the database, I realised there was nothing for it and I would have to go through all of the ‘wearing apparel’ patents of this time period listed in the abstract books, find the relevant cycle wear abstracts and copy them by hand, courtesy of a crashed computer. This has been an interesting experience.

Going through the patents of this period, I really got a sense of the time and how women’s situation was both changing and rigidly stayed the same. Especially during the years around 1895 there was a concentration of women cycle wear patents, with more and less extravagant designs (my favourite design being a cycling costume that looks like an onion, to me anyway). Interestingly, these cycle wear designs all focus on women’s mobility and promise a certain change in women’s situation, while they are found between patents that mark exactly the opposite. I was specifically struck by the patents surrounding corsetry. The end of the 1800s was the last tight-lacing period, where wasp waists were increasingly the norm, and the effects of that can be seen in the patents sealed. Such as for instance ‘corset belts’ to pull in women’s corset bellies (a result of the intestines being pushed down as the corset is laced and as such the lower abdomen is pushed out). My favourite find was a ‘corset for the deceased’ patented in the late 1880s – apparently women needed a wasp waist even in death. There is something about a corset especially crafted for the dead that strikes me as deeply disturbing on several levels. These tight-lacing related patents stand in such stark contrast to the cycling wear of the time. (However, they do trigger my curiosity to what extent it is possible to ride a bike with a 20 inch waist. I might have to try this out.)

After going through the abstracts (and re-acquainting myself with my own hand writing), I wanted to know the location and gender of the patentee. I went to the desk and asked whether there were any databases or lists from which I could just pick up the information. I found out that there are not and would have to go through all (65) women’s cycle wear patents individually. This is exactly where the red tape came in. Officially you are only allowed to order 10 patents a day, which meant that it would take me 7 trips to the British Library to gather my information. After getting approval from the archive’s management, I was allowed to order 20 to 25 patents a day. However, for each patent you have to fill in a card (by hand) with the information of your British Library membership, institution and patent requested. The people at the desk have to sign and copy each card. After the first day I could see their faces drop south as I walked in with my stack of cards. On the upside, I did get to sit at the special patent desk.

Going through the patents individually was interesting in itself, especially seeing all the names and job descriptions, many women being defined as “Spinster” or “Widow”. However, on my last day I found a patent for a cycling skirt invented by Georgina Robertson, she was a Lecturer on Hygiene and Physiology at the National Health Society in London in 1896. One can only imagine how she managed that!

Coincidentally, I wrote up my archive research around the time of International Women’s Day. Now, usually the predominantly heterosexist and imperialist discourse surrounding this yearly event leaves me unsettled, to put it very nicely. However, this year while being surrounding by all these women’s names and snippets of stories situated more than a century ago, I am left with a sense of entanglement of feminist practice that stretches across time. I do appreciate that in the present day a corset for the deceased strikes me, and most people I imagine, as a disturbing artifact. And I appreciate the feminist efforts and practices (including the inventions of women’s cycle wear) of which this sense of disturbance is an effect.

 

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