This Black History Month, we thought we’d look at some of the household items invented by African Americans throughout history. Within minutes, we were completely overwhelmed. An endless number of critical, everyday objects came up in our searches, yet most Black inventors haven’t received the credit they deserve.
Before slavery was abolished, Black inventors were not able to obtain patents because they were considered property, not American citizens. Even after Emancipation, racism and a steady stream of legal barriers prevented recognition and financial gain for many. But America has a lot to thank these inventors for, including the perseverance it took for them to bring us these brilliant inventions.
This list is only a small sampling of contributions, but is still an interesting glimpse into the extraordinary people who turned our houses into homes and made our lives easier, safer, and tastier over the decades.
1. Curved Ironing Board with Collapsible Legs
While techniques to smooth clothing have existed for thousands of years, they didn’t involve a version of a contemporary ironing board until Sarah Boone (1832-1904) came along. Boone, born enslaved, was one of the first African Americans to receive a patent in the late 19th century. While previous ironing board designs didn't allow for the efficient ironing of an entire garment, Boone's design had a contoured shape, larger, curved surface, and included collapsible legs. These changes revolutionized the act of de-wrinkling garments. Her patent was applied for on December 30, 1887 and granted April 26, 1892 in New Haven, Connecticut, certifying Boone as the inventor of the modern ironing board with collapsible legs.
2. The Mail Box
Despite all the technological advances and endless new modes of communication, we still seem to send and receive an incalculable amount of mail! We can thank Philip Bell Downing (1857-1934) for being the first to design a receptacle that would keep our mail dry and safe just a short walk away. Before his “street letter box,” one had to walk to the nearest post office—which could be quite a distance in many cases—to mail any and all items.
During the late 19th and the early 20th century, Philip Downing successfully filed at least five patents with the United States Patent Office. Another significant invention of his was a mechanical device for operating street railway switches.
3. Carbon Filament, Telephone (in part), and Air Conditioning Units
Maybe a carbon filament doesn’t sound like the most life-changing of inventions, but without them, we wouldn’t have light bulbs as we know them today. While Thomas Edison gets most of the credit for perfecting the light bulb, the innovation to create longer-lasting light bulbs with carbon filament came from an African American inventor named Lewis Latimer (1848-1928). Before Latimer, bulbs would burn out after only a few days. Latimer got a patent for his invention in 1882, something countless Black innovators in the generations before him were unable to do.
The son of formerly enslaved people, Latimer began work in a patent law firm after serving in the military for the Union during the Civil War. He also worked with Alexander Graham Bell to draft the patent for Bell’s design of the telephone. Then in 1886, Latimer patented his invention of an early air conditioning unit!
4. Home Security Systems
Marie Van Brittan Brown (1922-1999) from Queens, New York, was a full-time nurse who often worked off hours. Her husband Albert L. Brown also worked irregular, late hours, so Marie was often home alone at night in an area that saw a lot of crime. For this reason, she devised a system that would alert her of strangers at her door and contact the relevant authorities!
Her original invention consisted of peepholes, a camera, monitors, and a two-way microphone. But perhaps most critically, she incorporated an alarm button that would immediately contact the police. Her patent laid the groundwork for the modern closed-circuit television system that is widely used for surveillance, home security systems, push-button alarm triggers, crime prevention, and traffic monitoring.
Sometimes one patent isn’t enough. Frederick McKinley Jones (1893-1961) received over 40 patents in his journey of developing refrigeration equipment, beginning in the 1930s. He began inventing refrigerated air-cooling units for food transportation on trucks, trains, ships, and planes. Ultimately his creation, called the Thermo King, allowed people to eat safe, fresh food year-round.
Jones’ refrigeration systems also contributed to the medical field by allowing the preservation of blood and medicine for longer periods of time, which was especially useful during WWII. In 1991, he became the first African American to receive the National Medal of Technology.
6. Sanitary Belts
We’re definitely not leaving this out. Mary Beatrice Davidson Kenner (1912-2006) was a relentless inventor since childhood and couldn’t turn down a challenge to come up with sensible solutions to everyday problems. Kenner’s family moved to Washington, D.C. when she was young, and she began stalking the halls of the United States Patent and Trademark Office, trying to determine if her ideas had already been patented. At 12, she didn’t find any evidence that they had.
But applying for a patent is and was expensive—yet another barrier that disproportionately affected many African American inventors. By 1957, Kenner had finally saved enough money for her first patent: a belt for sanitary napkins. At the time, the only options were cloth pads and rags, so Kenner proposed an adjustable belt with an inbuilt, moisture-proof napkin pocket, making it less likely that menstrual blood could leak and stain clothes. She ended up filing a total of five patents for various household needs—likely the most patents of any other African American woman in U.S. history. Despite this, Kenner is thought to be one of the most “forgotten” Black inventors.
7. Peanut Products
While there is debate as to whether George Washington Carver (c. 1864-1943) actually invented peanut butter, it’s safe to say he did not slack on his peanut-centric inventions. Born into slavery in Missouri around 1864, Carver was a sickly child not able to do outside labor, so he worked inside the home, cooking, mending, embroidering, doing the laundry, and creating herbal medicines. He became so adept at working with plants that he was known by neighboring farmers as “the plant doctor” for his experiments with natural pesticides and more.
At age 11, Carver left the farm to attend an all-Black school in a nearby town. He would eventually earn a master’s degree in agricultural science from Iowa State University and go on to teach and conduct research at Tuskegee University for decades.
As an agricultural chemist, he recognized that unlike the dwindling cotton supply in the South, sweet potatoes and peanuts were thriving in the late 19th century. As a result, he started experimenting and created a staggering 518 new products from these crops, including ink, dye, soap, cosmetics, flour, vinegar, and synthetic rubber. For a full list of just his peanut products, click here. Carver’s genius contributed greatly to the economic improvement of the rural South. Soon after his death, his childhood home would be named a national monument—the first of its kind.
8. Gas Heating Furnace
In the first decades of the 20th century, natural gas was used for industrial heating applications but it hadn’t been scaled in a way where it could be used to heat homes and businesses. At the same time, a woman named Alice H. Parker (1895-1920) was fed up with cold New Jersey winters and ineffective fireplaces. She came up with the idea of using a single source of heat, centrally located, to provide warmth through air pipes to a home. Her invention has since revolutionized how people heat their homes.
Parker’s design allowed cool air to be drawn into the furnace, then conveyed through a heat exchanger that delivered warm air through ducts to individual rooms of a house. The concept of central heating was around before Parker was born, but her design was unique because it used natural gas as its fuel instead of coal or wood that had been previously used. Her design also decreased the risk of fires by eliminating the need to leave a burning fireplace on throughout the night. Very little is known about Alice Parker’s life. She was born in 1895, grew up in Morristown, New Jersey, and earned a certificate with honors from Howard University Academy high school in Washington D.C.
9. A Better Hairbrush
African American women played an integral role in the development of haircare products in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. One of those inventors was Lyda D. Newman (c. 1885 - ?), who was born in Ohio and lived much of her life in New York City. Newman was a hairdresser by trade and designed a “new and improved hair-brush,” which she patented in 1898. The brush was revolutionary with its evenly spaced bristles, slots that kept dirt and hair neatly contained, and a detachable compartment for easy cleaning. The synthetic bristles Newman used were similar to the plastic ones used today. In addition to being a hairdresser and inventor, Newman was also a women's rights activist. She fought for women's voting rights, among other things, working with well-known suffrage activists. Little is known about her personal life, which is typical because women, especially Black women, were generally overlooked at the time. Newman was the third Black woman to ever receive a patent.
10. The Wringing Mop
Throughout much of history, floors were made out of packed dirt or plaster, and cleaned with brooms made from straw, twigs, corn husks, or horse hair. Wealthier families, however, laid their floors with slate, marble, or other types of stone, which required a wet cleaning method. Eventually, this luxury became common for the middle classes as well. These early mops were likely just bundles of rags or yarns attached to a wooden pole. A dictionary in 1788 listed a “mopsqueezer” as “a maid servant, particularly a housemaid.”
More than a century later in June 1893, Thomas W. Stewart (1823 - ?), a Black inventor from Kalamazoo, Michigan, patented a new type of mop. Stewart wanted to save time and make cleaning a healthier experience, so he came up with two key improvements: a mop head that could be unscrewed from the base of the handle allowing users to clean the head or discard it when worn out, and a lever attached to the mop head that would wring out water without users getting their hands wet. Floor cleaning has never been the same, and we most certainly have eliminated “mopsqueezer” from our vocabularies!