Thursday, October 25, 2012

Happy Birthday, Helen Blanchard

Helen Blanchard's 162nd birthday
is October 25, 2012
She invented the ZigZag attachment.
You may have thought that was a 1950s idea.
Because that's when they were promoted for home sewing machines.
A 1957 ad for a Stitch-O-Matic with attachments
But Helen Augusta Blanchard received patents for what she called a zigzag or overseam attachment in the mid 1870s.

Here's one of her patent drawings for a stitch useful for joining knits.
Newspaper articles and a short 1897 biography said she ran a sewing machine company called the Blanchard Overseam Machine Company and got rich off these patents. Like other sewing machine inventors she probably made her money in patent royalties rather than in literally shipping machines.
She made the news at the end of the 19th century because of her unique position as a female inventor. One article actually said she was rich "beyond avarice," but Autumn Stanley for her book Mothers & Daughters of Invention found few records to confirm that. Blanchard's most important paper trail is in her patents which you can see at Google patents.
There was a time when Miss Helen Blanchard's name might not have been feted in the quilt world.

The 1950-1990 reaction to the zigzag attachment for the home machine could be called aesthetically limited.
Raw-edged polyester doubleknits lent
 themselves nicely to the zigzag stitch.
But over the years stitchers have mastered the zigzag.
Better mechanisms built into the machine
And adjustable widths and lengths have gone a long way to making the zigzag stitch indispensible. We should also thank whoever invented the fusible innerfacing too. And then there's the glue stick. But the basics---the zigzagger demands
A toast to Helen A. Blanchard!
Here's the text of an 1888 news article syndicated by the Boston Globe.

A Maine Girl's Profitable Invention
The story of one Portland girl deserves to be recounted. This is of Miss Helen Blanchard, now a resident of Philadelphia, who was specially gifted, and who succeeded in a field commonly supposed to be open only to the masculine intellect. She is of an inventive mind, and with a passion for mechanical contrivance from her childhood. Naturally she was foreordained to invent something, and she did it. The something or rather the first thing she invented, was an attachment for sewing machines to sew "over-and-over" stitches. The story that was told of her runs to the effect that one day, while at work at a sewing machine, she got out of patience with the way it worked, and in a passion kicked it over, with the remark that she could make a better machine than that herself. Straightway, continued the veracious chronicler, she proceeded to invent the "over-and-over" attachment. In point of fact, the account thus given is largely a myth. Miss Blanchard did not and does, not kick sewing machines, but she did very decorously and properly, after long and careful study, invent the "over-and-over" attachment, and obtained a patent on it. This laid the foundation for the large fortune which it is pleasant to be able to say she now enjoys. She owns large estates, a manufactory, and many patent rights. Her fortune, royalties and income, without venturing statements accurate enough to be impertinent, may be described In the fluent language of the divine novelist or sensational reporter, as "beyond the wildest dream of avarice." She earned it all herself. She had no assistance from any one, and hired money at 25 percent, to pay her first Patent Office fees.
1955 ad

See a preview of
Autumn Stanley's,  Mothers and Daughters of Invention: Notes for a Revised History of Technology at Google Books
And see Blanchard's patents here
by doing a patent search for Helen A Blanchard


  1. It is amazing what machines can do now and the woman who had an idea to make them better, which forged the way.


  2. I love that last ad. I wish I had three miniature versions of myself! They could do the chores. Well, the little chores. Also the cats would probably eat them, so maybe that's not a good idea.