Teacher, Principal, and Inventor Clarissa Britain

To commemorate National Women’s Inventor’s Month and celebrate women innovators, we are highlighting Civil War–era inventor Clarissa Britain. Britain secured patents for seven inventions within 18 months. Today’s post comes from Jen Johnson, curator at the National Archives at Kansas City.

Britain’s Patent No. 40,157, Improvements in boilers, October 6, 1863. (Records of the Patent and Trademark Office, National Archives)

Clarissa Britain was born into a politically successful, comfortable middle-class family in Brownville, New York in 1816. Because of her socioeconomic position, she was afforded opportunities that many women were not, education being one of them. Britain is among many notable women who graduated from Emma Willard’s Troy Female Seminary in Troy, New York, where she attended from 1838 to 1839, not long after Elizabeth Cady Stanton graduated in 1832. 

Britain had several siblings and lived with them throughout her life n the six or seven cities she called home. After years of school, teaching was her profession. She was living with her brother in Michigan when she opened her own school in 1841 called The Niles Female Seminary, where she was principal. After a few years, she sold her school and later joined her sister in South Carolina, where she worked as a teacher. 

While Britain lived in South Carolina, the state seceded from the United States in 1860. She traveled back to Michigan when her brother died in 1862 to settle his estate. Britain traveled approximately 900 miles across a divided country consumed by warfare to reach Michigan. Her dates of travel and route are unknown ,but she could have gone through North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, or Virginia. In 1862 alone, there were more than 50 engagements between the Union and Confederacy in those states. 

What we do know is that, beginning in 1863 at age 47, she did an astonishing amount of innovative work and secured seven patents in 18 months. Her patents show the variety of her inventions and provide an insight into how her Civil War travels possibly gave her inspiration and firsthand experience. Her ingenuity documented on paper began with Patent No. 37,851, a floor warmer. A few months later, she was granted Patent No. 39,460, an improvement on ambulances, and five more patents followed those. 

Britain’s Patent Case File No. 39,460, Improvement on Ambulances, 1863. (National Archives Identifier 70664099)

Clarissa Britain’s Patents:

  • Patent No. 37,851, Floor warmer, March  10, 1863
  • Patent No. 39, 460, Improvement on ambulances, August 11, 1863
  • Patent No. 40,157, Improvements in boilers, October 6, 1863 
  • Patent No. 41,274, Improved lantern dinner pail, January 19, 1864 
  • Patent No. 43,087, Improvement in vegetable boilers, June 14, 1864 
  • Patent No. 43,088, Improved dish-drainer, June 14, 1864 
  • Patent No. 44,393, Improvement in lamp-burners, September 27, 1864 
Britain’s Patent Case File No. 39,460, Improvement on Ambulances, 1863 (National Archives Identifier 70664099)

Britain is one of hundreds of women who patented ideas during the Civil War, and her seven patents are part of the more than 5,000 patents awarded to women between 1790 and 1888. Overall, those account for less than 1 percent of patents issued. Women inventors faced real obstacles in 19th-century America. Suffragist and author Matilda Joslyn Gage summed it up in “Woman as an Inventor,” writing:

In not a single State of the Union is a married woman held to possess a right to her earnings within the family; and in not one-half of them has she a right to their control in business entered upon outside of the household. Should such a woman be successful in obtaining a patent, what then? Would she be free to do as she pleased with it? Not at all. She would hold no right, title, or power over this work of her own brain. She would possess no legal right to contract, or to license any one to use her invention.

— Matilda Joslyn Gage, “Woman as an Inventor,” North American Review, 1883

Despite Britain’s bright mind and never having married, there is no evidence that she made money on her patents. She did not patent any other inventions under her name after 1864. While there is much that is unknown about her and her life, through National Archives patent records we have a small window into a life that might otherwise have been lost to history. 

March is Women’s History Month. Visit our website to see more Women’s History in our holdings.

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