Yesterday’s Patents #1

I have found some fascinating inventions in my trawl through Victorian patents lodged from 1885 to 1900. For the ‘Freedom of Movement’ project we’re focusing on (and re/making garments from) five key patents of women’s cyclewear but some of the many others treasure in this archive really need a broader audience.

Each patent tells a unique story in detailed visual and textual description, providing a glimpse into the nature of women’s cycling, the social context of the time, the kinds of lives their inventors were living and much more.

Starting in Jan 2014,  I am posting a ‘Patent of the Week’. They will be (mostly) cycle-related. This is is the first one:

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British Patent: No. 29,448
Date of Application: 22nd December 1896
Date of acceptance: 6th February 1897
Title: A New or Improved Combined Garter and Skirt Distender For Cycling and Other Skirts
Patent Holder: Helena Wilson, 76 Regent Street, London W. Costumier

GB189629448 p3

It is a little hard at first to understand just what Helena Wilson has invented and patented. The lady cyclist in the illustration is wearing a cycling costume of the period – tailored jacket, gloves, hat, shortened skirt, bloomers, spats and boots. She appears to be sporting quite a risky cutaway skirt, but it is a visual device to reveal a cross section of the garment and highlight the thing on her knee. Despite the elegant drawings, the object being patented – the furry knee thing –  looks a bit like a leg warmer crossed with a sentient being.

Yet, this patent is one of the more descriptive ones in that Helena explains in detail not only how to replicate her invention but also the catalyst for her idea. As a result it provides a fascinating insight into social conventions and gendered forms of mobility of the time.

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Helena has designed a cycling garter in a pleated form that operates to conceal the shape and movement of the knees while cycling. She explains that while knickerbockers worn under a skirt are ‘eminently‘ better for this form of movement, they produce two problems:

1. The skirt clings to the knees – ‘has the disadvantage of frequently and undesirably outlining the shape of the lower limbs by too closely clinging to them, especially when travelling at some speed against a head-wind’

2. The combination of garments make it difficult to cycle – ‘impeding the free movement of the legs as required for pedalling and the like’

So, what this furry knee cuff does is enable women to cycle without looking like they’re moving their legs, potentially enabling them to defy conventional norms.

She explains in more detail:

GB189629448 description

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Who was Helena Wilson?

Many thanks to Genevieve Bell who did a quick search into the genealogy of Helena Wilson in the 1901 English Census and found three potential candidates who lived in London at this time:

Civil Parish: St Pancras – This Helena was the 30 year old wife of Charles Wilson, a theatrical performer, and mother of 5 children aged 1-18. Her vocation (ie. costumier) is not listed but this is often the case for women in Victorian Census documents, which makes them difficult to track. Give the patent was lodged in 1896, she would have been 25 years old (and clearly very busy bearing and caring for kids) at the time when she was preparing all of the paperwork…. but it’s possible.

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Civil Parish: Hampstead – This Helena was the 52 year old head of the household ‘living on her own means’ with a 64 year old housekeeper. This would make her 47 when the patent was lodged. Given the invention is of an arguable conservative nature, it’s not impossible to conceive.

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Civil Parish: Battersea – This Helena was a 40 year old widow ‘living on her own means’ with her 18 year old daughter. Again, no indication is provided for how she was living on her own means. Quite possibly she did not want to give details of her vocation to the Census collector. She would have been 35 at the time the patent was lodged.

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