According to this sample of inventions, the daily drudgeries that Americans longed most desperately to be liberated from 100 years ago were washing their clothes and rocking their babies. Several models in the sale are for primitive washing machines and automatic children's swings. Many of these inventions seem specifically designed to liberate women from the worst aspects of domestic enslavement. Of course, no benevolent motive need be assigned to this trend; surely the time that a washing machine would save could be just as easily spent fixing better dinners. To that end, several models in the sale represent culinary accessories, kitchen stoves, and early attempts at refrigeration. Models for other potential home improvers include carpet sweepers, ventilation systems, shingle makers, two contraptions for rendering lard, sheets of printed W.C. paper, and an electric bath.

Most of the models offered for sale have a high degree of aesthetic beauty and craftsmanship to them, but several specific models suggest an even stronger relationship to art in terms of their lack of obvious physical function. Perhaps it is true in the realm of invention as in no other that one expects an object to be capable of doing something, useful or not. The functions of many of the objects offered for sale were not immediately apparent. Often the object's name served as a clue, with some notable exceptions. Some of the more beautiful but functionally opaque offerings included a round wooden box called a "Feather Renovator" and a huge brass-plated funnel held up bymahogany supports labeled a "Dust Collector."

Improvement in Sidesaddles by Clara A. Bartlett (1864), estimate: $400-600 price: $6,900

Shingle Sawing Machine by Dennis Lane (1881), estimate:$2,800/3,200 price: $5,750

Improved Nail Machine by I.E. Davison (1868), estimate: $9,000/10,000 price: $10,350

Rotating Blast-Producing Chair by Leopold Richard Breisach (1858) estimate: $7,500/9,000 price: $8,625

Improved Washing Machine by Caroline F. Fleming (1868), estimate: $4,500/5,500 price: $6,325

Carbonizer for Light-Bulb Filaments by Thomas Edison (1881), estimate: $50,000/$60,000 price: $57,500

Improvement in Construction of Sailing Vessels by Nathaniel Herreshoff (1877), estimate: $18,000/22,000 price: $11,500

Improved Brick Machine by P.H. Kells (1867), estimate: $5,000/10,000 price: $8,970

Three parts:
a) Improvement in Telegraph Apparatus by Elisha Gray, (1867);
b) Improvement in Magnets for Electric Telegraphs by Sir Charles Wheatstone and J.M.A. Stroh (1875);and
c) Improvement in Gas Burners by Albert Marcius Silber (1875), estimate: $3,200/4,500 price: $7,820

Improved Sugar Evaporator by John K. Leedy (1862), estimate: $4,500/5,500 price: $6,670

The tendency to fetishize objects of historical importance is perhaps an acquired taste. Since America is such a young society, it may make sense that it has taken so long for these symbols of the American Dream to achieve social prominence and high prices. Perhaps we had to get used to appreciating relics of a more frivolous nature before we could comfortably fetishize technological achievement. It' s worth noting that while Christie's holds several sales of film, television, celebrity, and "pop" memorabilia each year (selling such things as the dog tags that Linda Hamilton wore in the film T2, estimated at $2,000-2,500), the January "Art of Invention" patent model sale was the first of its kind. But not the last; two more sales from Cliff Petersen's collection are planned for the next few years (guess they didn' t want to flood the patent model market). If you save up and watch the auction-house schedules, a piece of the American Dream could adorn your mantelpiece.   </end>


Photos courtesy of Christie's

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