Not Your Typical Alabama Southern Belle
The year was 1903 and women still wore long dresses. The Los Angeles herald newspaper made it a point to review the latest trends in fashion for women. “Everything this season of 1905 is in the bright or light colorings: black gowns are the exception like the beaded dress shown here. Even for street wear the lightest possible effects are considered the smartest. … Though this reviewer loves a pretty train – there is much to be said for their absence. The train can be absurdly inconvenient to wear – even hard to show to advantage in a crowded ballroom, whereas these new short dresses with little if no train are, if well made, extremely smart and becoming. … The skirts are very full around the foot, and the flare is most carefully calculated, so that around the hips there shall not be one inch of unnecessary material, while below almost the effect of crinoline is demanded – and so many ruffles and flounces of chiffon and lace as are displayed by the whisk of the skirt as the wearer moves about – well, fortunately, there is not so much difficulty in keeping the skirt looking fresh.”
Any young woman traveling by streetcar in New York City would have had cleanliness on her mind since her skirt puddled around her ankle. Perhaps it was with this mindset that Mary Anderson viewed the streetcar driver leave his seat to clean the window so he could see to drive. Mary was from the southern part of Alabama and riding the streetcar was a favorite part of her trips to New York City. Still, it was rather inconvenient for the car to stop so the driver could clean the window. Whether it was the dust of summer, the rain of spring and fall, or the snow in winter, a driver did need to see where he was going.
On June 18, 1903, Mary Anderson filed a patent for what she called a “window cleaning device”. Her patent was issued November 10, 1903. The device was operated from inside of the vehicle via a lever and was to be used on electric cars and other vehicles.
Robert A Douglass recorded a similar device three months earlier for a “locomotive-cab-window cleaner and Irishman James Henry Apjohn followed in the United Kingdom in October of the same year. Apjohn’s “apparatus for cleaning carriage, motor car, and other windows could use either brushes or wipers and specified it was available both with a motor or to be used by hand. In 1911 a company in London actually produced the first windshield wipers but history generally gives credit to Mary Anderson as the inventor extraordinaire of windshield wipers. It was, after all, her design that was first used on automobiles, her rubber blade being deemed most serviceable.
The first transatlantic west-to-east radio broadcast was successfully transmitted in January of 1903 from the United States to England. In December 1901 the first east-to-west transmission had been received. I am not certain as to why it took an entire year to reverse the transmission but it did. Theodore Roosevelt was President of the United States and a stuffed animal in his honor was introduced later that same year. (Guess what we will discuss tomorrow?)
Also in 1903 the Department of Commerce and Labor within the cabinet of the U.S. government was formed and within it, the U.S. Census Bureau. Also in 1903 was a labor strike. Called the Oxnard Labor Strike of 1903, it represented the first time a labor union had members of different races. YOU may think this strike took place in Oxnard, California and it did but the town takes its name from the brothers who began a sugar refinement factory there. The strike happened at their factory and involved Japanese and Mexican workers fighting and striking for their perceived rights. I am not commenting on the strike because it is not our focus and I don’t know enough about it. However, I am heartened by the fact that two such diverse groups came together.
I’ve been trying to paint a picture of the landscape of 1903. Simply put, men were the power and women were supposed to stay home. They certainly were not supposed to invent something for a streetcar or other automotive transportation. Mary Anderson’s idea about how to clean the vehicle windows was not met with enthusiasm. Many felt the wipers would be a great distraction for drivers. By 1916, though, they were standard on most vehicles. By the way, fourteen years later, Charlotte Bridgewood patented the first automatic windshield wiper.
Many people were initially leery of Anderson’s windshield wiper invention, thinking it would distract drivers, but by 1916 windshield wipers were standard on most vehicles. It was also a woman inventor who first patented the automatic windshield wiper in 1917 (Charlotte Bridgewood’s “Storm Windshield Cleaner”).
These were two women who saw a need and then went about deciding how to answer that need. They did not just sit back and leave it to chance that someone else might invent the answer. They used their minds. We all have our self-doubts. It is a part of life, a natural part of life. Living is not for the weak. We have to push those doubts aside and give life a try.
Charlotte Bridgewood’s automatic windshield wipers were not a commercial success but they paved the way for the ones on my car today, the very ones that helped me see returning home in the middle of a rainstorm. Yes, the rain was predicted. Yes, I wrote about it yesterday. Yes, I thought I could get to the market before it started to rain. Yes, I was wrong. Nonetheless, I did get the items I needed and I made it home safely using my windshield wipers. Thank you, Mary Anderson and Charlotte Bridgewood!