From the moment manacled African captives were removed from the hold of slave ships and exhibited at auctions and sold to the highest bidder, working at some point of production was inevitable. Despite the hardships, the inhumane treatment, some of the captives possessed the stamina and wherewithal to endure, and to create ways to make the labor less intensive. Sarah Boone was one of these enslaved women who was endowed with the imaginative power and ingenuity to make her work easier, and easier for others too.
Born Sarah Marshall in 1832 near the town of New Bern in Craven County, North Carolina, she was the child of parents in bondage. According to some sources, she acquired her freedom by virtue of marriage to James Boone, a free Black man, in 1847. They eventually had eight children.
Not content to abide by the onerous conditions in North Carolina, the couple began an association with conductors of the Underground Railroad. Soon Sarah, her husband, and her widowed mother, were on their way north to New Haven, Connecticut, a move they made before the Civil War. They settled into a Black neighborhood near Dixwell Avenue, where Sarah found employment as a dressmaker while her husband worked as a bricklayer until his death in the 1870s. Before his death, he and Sarah had accumulated enough wealth to purchase their own home.
As a resident in the new community far from the strictures of enslavement, Sarah became a valued member of the neighborhood with regular attendance to the Dixwell Congregational Church. Meanwhile, she began, through others, to acquire the rudiments of education, taking classes in reading and writing.
It was through her daily involvement as a dressmaker that she conceived a way to invent the modern-day ironing board. She said she wanted a way “to produce a cheap, simple, convenient and highly effective device, particularly adapted to be used in ironing the sleeves and bodies of ladies garments.” She set about designing the device with a modicum of help from other workers, and by 1892 she applied for a patent for her ironing board. When her application was approved, she became the first African American woman to be awarded a patent.
Sarah envisioned a process that would not only appeal to customers but make it easier to iron the dresses, which up to that time was done by placing a plank across two chairs. This method was okay for wide skirts but made it difficult when ironing the increasingly smaller corsets. She began by creating a narrower, curved board that could slip into sleeves and allow for a garment to be shifted without getting wrinkled. Voilà, the ironing board! To this she added padding to offset the impressions produced by the wooden board, and, most efficiently, she later made the entire apparatus collapsible for easy storage.
The writing skills she had attained all the while working on her invention came in handy when she applied for a patent in 1891. She was awarded U.S. Patent No. 473,653 on April 26, 1892.
Such a simple device was a boon to many a homemaker, though there remains the extent to which she profited from the invention, particularly as they became a product for mass distribution by companies. Even so, we know that it was soon an indispensable household device and made manufacturers wealthy.
On October 29, 1904, Sarah died of Bright’s disease, or what today may be classified as acute or chronic nephritis. Her body is interred alongside her husband and her mother in New Haven’s Evergreen Cemetery.