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Inspiration

Sarah Boone | Profiles in Sewing History

One of the first African American women to receive a U.S. patent helped make improvements to a sewing room staple
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As a follow-up to our recent account of the first women to receive U.S. patents, we feature one of the first African American women to be awarded a U.S. patent. Her name was Sarah Boone. Sarah’s invention wasn’t for a special sewing technique or a new thread type. It was for improvements to a sewing room staple often found in non-sewing households and even hotel room closets. Any guesses? It’s an ironing board.

Sarah Boone’s early life

Sarah Marshall was born into an enslaved family in Craven County, North Carolina, in 1832. Just 15 years later, in 1847, Sarah married James Boone, who was a freeman. It is unclear how Sarah received her freedom, but she was eventually released from slavery and lived a prosperous life with her husband and eight children. The family, including Sarah’s widowed mother, moved to New Haven, Connecticut, before the Civil War. They settled into a house at 30 Winter Street, which was in an African American neighborhood. Sarah worked as a dressmaker and set up a shop with her daughters in New Haven, while her husband worked as a bricklayer.

Career and invention

Upon arriving in New Haven, Sarah realized how much competition she would face as a dressmaker. For that reason, she wanted to make her clothes stand out and knew that a properly pressed garment made all the difference. The problem was that corsets were trendy at the time and it was difficult to iron these garments that had narrow openings. Ironing boards in Sarah’s time usually consisted of putting a large piece of wood on top of two chairs. This was fine for oversized garments, but it was difficult to iron tight-fitting pieces this way. Sarah knew there must be an alternative. She set out to find a solution.

In the end, Sarah created an ironing board that was curved, padded, collapsible (to be stowed easily), and narrow enough to fit inside sleeves and waists. She made it reversible, too, so both sides of a sleeve could be ironed without causing creases midway through the process. It truly was a revolutionary device.

Sarah was determined to get her cutting-edge device patented. The amazing thing about this was that Sarah never had a proper education as a child. In fact, it was illegal to teach African Americans how to read where she grew up. Luckily, Sarah overcame this obstacle as an adult. She even took her reading lessons a step further and studied technical documents. She wanted to be prepared to write her own patent one day.

 

Sarah Boone ironing board patent illustration from 1892
Sarah Boone submitted this illustration to the U.S. patent office for her new and improved ironing board design. The government granted her a patent in 1892.

By April 26, 1892, all Sarah’s hard work paid off. The patent office awarded the 60-year-old dressmaker U.S. Patent 473,653 for her new and improved ironing board invention.

The aftermath

It is unclear whether Sarah commercialized her ironing board. Many consider her invention to be the predecessor to the ironing board we know today.

Sarah lived an extraordinary life. Despite the inherent disadvantages she faced as a formerly enslaved woman, Sarah was still able to achieve what was thought to be impossible – she followed her dreams. A determined individual, she continues to be an inspiration as one of the first African American women to receive a U.S. patent.

Sarah died of Bright’s disease at her home in New Haven on October 29, 1904.

Are you familiar with Sarah Boone’s story? What feature of Sarah’s ironing board invention do you find most useful? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

Editor’s note: This feature is part of the Profiles in Sewing History series, presented by Threads. In this blog collection, we are highlighting some lesser-known individuals who made a difference in the world of fashion and sewing. You may have heard of some of these trailblazers. Others have failed to receive the recognition they deserve. Follow along as we cover a new unsung influencer every month.

Click here for additional installments of Profiles in Sewing History. 

Illustration: Steven Fleck. 

Sources

Bellis, Mary. “Biography of Sarah Boone.” ThoughtCo, 18 July 2019, www.thoughtco.com/sarah-boone-inventor-4077332.

Helton, Daniel. “Sarah Boone (1832-1904).” Blackpast, 4 July 2018, www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/boone-sarah-1832-1904/.

“Ironing-Board.” Google Patents, Google, patents.google.com/patent/US473653?oq=473653.

Ramirez, Ainissa. “Here Are Two Connecticut Inventors Who Should Have Statues.” Courant.com, Hartford Courant, 26 July 2020, www.courant.com/opinion/op-ed/hc-op-ramirez-statutes-connecticut-inventors-0726-20200726-26tyypy3uvbj3ggmw35yenhryu-story.html.

Ramirez, Ainissa. “New Haven’s Hidden Figure: Sarah Boone.” New Haven Independent, 22 Feb. 2019, www.newhavenindependent.org/index.php/archives/entry/new_havens_hidden_figure_sarah_boone/.

“Sarah Boone.” Biography.com, A&E Television Networks, 30 July 2020, www.biography.com/inventor/sarah-boone.

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