233: The Self-Empowered Woman: Sybilla Masters

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Dear Followers,

Two months ago, I was really inspired by the Microsoft commercial about female inventors.  Here is the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y8DBwchocvs.  My latest blog will introduce you to the very first American female inventor…

The first recorded mention of Sybilla Masters is in the records of the New Jersey Colony in 1692. Her parents, William and Sarah Righton, were Quakers who had moved from Bermuda in 1687, and in 1695, she married a successful Quaker merchant from Philadelphia.

They lived in a large mansion that overlooked the Delaware River, and Masters became a Justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in 1701, and served as Mayor of Philadelphia in 1707 and 1708. Like most colonial women, Sybilla’s domestic responsibilities included procuring and preparing the family’s food. At that time, a staple of the colonial diet was Hominy meal, which was made from ground-up Indian corn.

Back then the Hominy meal was made by grinding corn between two large “millsones,” and it was hard work. After Sybilla watched Native American women pound the corn with large wooden posts, she invented a different type of meal. Instead of using grinding wheels to pound the corn into meal, she relied on “hammers.” She called the resulting corn meal “Tuscarora Rice,” and this allowed the corn crops to be processed into a variety of different food and fabric products.

At the time, Pennsylvania did not grant patents, so Sybilla decided to travel to England in 1712 to procure a patent for her invention. But when she arrived in London there was no standard procedure available, so she finally had to apply to King George. By 1715, a patent was issued to Thomas Masters for Sybilla’s invention because—by law—women were not allowed to receive patents.

The wording for the patent was “for the process of Cleaning and Curing the Indian Corn Growing in the several Colonies in America.” It was numbered Patent #401 to Thomas Masters for “a new invention found out by Sybilla, his wife.” It was the first patent issued by the king to a person from the American Colonies.

The next year, she developed a process for weaving straw and palmetto leaves into hats, bonnets and other products. While she had been waiting for her patents to be approved by the King of England, Sybilla had opened a shop in London called “The West India Hat and Bonnet,” where she sold chair covers and hats made from “treated” straw and leaves.

Sybilla Masters was the first American woman to receive a patent. In 1793 America finally had its own patent office. Anyone who enjoys eating corn muffins, grits or cornbread has Sybilla to thank!

About Marilyn Murray Willison

The author of six non-fiction books, Willison worked as Health and Fitness Editor at the Los Angeles Times Syndicate, and wrote book reviews, health, beauty, fashion, and travel articles on a regular basis for the Los Angeles Times. Her byline has appeared in a wide variety of American newspapers and magazines.