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"Skirt Protector." Patent no. 34162, filed by Annie Dixon, 1890


Patent no. 34162. Filing year 1890.

"Skirt Protector," Annie Dixon.

By 1991, only one per cent of all Canadian patents had been granted to women; the proportion in the 19th century was almost certainly lower. There are a number of reasons for this. In Canada, women were still considered second-class citizens -- they were unable to vote in certain provinces until 1916. Fewer occupations were open to women and women had fewer opportunities for higher education; this left them out of the major industrial advances of the era. Plus, as Ethlie Ann Vare notes in Mothers of Invention, her profile of women inventors, there is evidence that women's ideas, particularly before the 20th century, were often overlooked or "borrowed" by men.

It is not surprising, then, that most patents granted to Canadian women between 1869 and 1894 were for inventions relating to the domestic sphere and to fashion; women's inventions were geared at solving the problems of their daily lives. One example is the "Skirt Protector," above, patented in 1890 by Annie Dixon, who identified herself on the patent application as "wife of Alexander Hutton Dixon."

Dixon's skirt protector consisted of material that fitted both over and under a skirt and fastened at the bottom, essentially forming a bag around the skirt. The inner skirt had holes for the legs and straps to suspend it from the waist or legs. The protector could be made from different materials for different weather conditions. As well, Dixon added leggings to protect the legs. Another skirt-related invention, patented before 1869, actually lifted the skirt to avoid puddles and other obstacles.

Other patents by women during this time include a device for measuring and cutting garments, filed by Sarah J. Smith of Montréal in 1880 (no. 11388); improvements to cooking stoves, ranges and ovens, filed by Mary G. Wilson of Hamilton in 1883 (no. 16258); and a baby jumper, filed by Mary Norman of St. Lambert, Quebec, in 1886 (no. 25123).

Non-domestic 19th-century patents by women, though rare, indicate changes taking place in society that would eventually lead to women's suffrage and their entry into traditionally male disciplines. Eliza Scott's druggist's sieve, which is also profiled in this exhibit, takes a kitchen tool and applies it to the field of pharmacy. Margaret Shackell of Montréal patented improvements to lubricating cups in 1876 (no. 5588), an otherwise male-dominated area of invention.

On the other hand, the inclusion of a woman's name on a 19th-century patent can be interpreted in different ways; for example, a railway car ballast and earth unloader (no. 10532), patented in 1879 by Elizabeth Gossage of St. Thomas, Ontario, along with Patrick Dowling and George Merrill of Toledo, Ohio, might signal the admission of a woman's equal role in an invention -- or it might reveal the way the male inventors got around the residency requirement for a Canadian patent.


Panabaker, Janet. Inventing Women: Profiles of Women Inventors. Etobicoke, Ont.: The Women Inventors Project, 1991.

Vare, Ethlie Ann, and Greg Ptacek. Mothers of Invention: From the Bra to the Bomb, Forgotten Women and Their Unforgettable Ideas. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1988.