America’s Last Top Models

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The ruins of American invention have been recently resurrected in a former textile mill in Wilmington, Delaware. The Henry Clay Mill, now better known as Hagley Museum and Library Visitor Center, is perched on the banks of Brandywine Creek, at the southern edge of a sprawling estate once owned by the du Pont family; just upstream lies the oldest of the dynasty’s several stately homes in the region, as well as the remains of the gunpowder works upon which its fortune was built. One morning, Chris Cascio, a curator, welcomed me into the mill, where the space once occupied by cotton-picking and carding machines now houses a curious exhibit: the scavenged remainders of a much larger, long-lost museum.

From 1790 to 1880, Cascio explained, the U.S. Patent Office first encouraged and then required an inventor to submit a model along with each application. These models—thousands of miniature devices, often exquisitely detailed—were then exhibited in Washington, D.C., in the office’s model gallery. Sometimes called the “Temple of Invention,” the gallery was a bustling landmark: it regularly attracted up to ten thousand visitors a month and was ranked as “the greatest permanent attraction in the city,” according to one newspaper. But by the late nineteenth century it had effectively shut its doors. Hagley’s latest exhibit, “Nation of Inventors,” is the largest permanent public display of patent models since that time.

Improvement in Boats for Duck-Shooting, by Robert Bogle, patented on May 5, 1857. The device consists of a floating platform with built-in waterproof leggings, “in which the gunner is secreted.”Photograph courtesy of Hagley Museum and Library

Cascio walked past a tiny machine for making gingersnaps and a small burglar-proof safe, before stopping in front of a tin evaporating pan, accessorized with rotating brass blades and powered by a wooden wheel. The inventor was Charles Alden, of Gloucester, Massachusetts, who glared at us from the accompanying portrait. “The Alden Process of Preserving and Perfecting Fish by Pneumatic Evaporation and Super-Maturation,” Cascio said, by way of introduction. “It’s a mouthful.” Alden’s device, patented on December 7, 1880, promised to dry and “fibrilize” fresh fish in around half an hour. “When it was done, it would be the consistency of vermicelli,” Cascio said. The resulting strips were free of salt, vinegar, or other preservatives, and, Alden claimed, they could be stored “in any climate for a long time,” then reconstituted into fresh fish with the application of water and pressure. The entire concept seemed ridiculous, not to mention unappetizing, but Cascio told me that there is archival evidence of a few preserved-fruit factories that relied on the Alden process.

Alden’s device was an exception; most of the inventions in the exhibit never found commercial use. Cascio described an elegant wood-and-fabric miniature boat submitted by Abraham Lincoln, the only President to receive a patent. (The actual model belongs to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.) The hull of Lincoln’s model is equipped with four rubber-cloth, accordion-like chambers, which can be inflated to make the vessel more buoyant. Intended to help navigate the shallow waters of Western rivers, and possibly inspired by Lincoln’s own experience getting stuck on a sandbar on a journey back to Illinois, the design was never manufactured. “Occasionally he would bring the model in the office, and while whittling on it would descant on its merits and the revolution it was destined to work in steamboat navigation,” his former law partner, William H. Herndon, recalled. “Although I regarded the thing as impracticable I said nothing, probably out of respect for Lincoln’s well-known reputation as a boatman.”

Nonetheless, as Cascio and I wound through the exhibit, strolling past models for fire escapes, coffins, and washing machines, it was impossible not to feel some of the excitement that made the original Temple of Invention a popular destination. The models embodied such an overwhelming faith in the potential for improvement that their lack of commercial success seemed almost irrelevant. For Mike Adams, Hagley’s museum and audience-engagement director, that energy is part of the charm of the American patent system, which is fundamentally optimistic. “In the European systems that predated the United States, you often had to prove viability,” he said. Inventors who failed to bring a viable product to market could lose their patent. “In the United States, there’s no real risk to patenting,” Adams went on. “It’s all reward.”

Artificial Sliding-Hill, by Constantine De Bodisco and Pedro De Rivera, patented on September 21, 1869. The slope was “watered” during the freezing winter months, “so as to form a solid and slippery surface” for sledding, while the tower contained both an elevator and a winding staircase for people to reach the top.Photograph courtesy of Hagley Museum and Library

The U.S. system was also unique in that no other country required a model to accompany a patent application. The reasons why soon became clear. As early as the eighteen-thirties, the collection had outgrown the Patent Office’s cramped headquarters at the former Blodgett’s Hotel. In 1836, a fire destroyed at least seven thousand models, but, rather than abandon the requirement, the Patent Office doubled down, securing congressional funding to reconstruct the models and laying the foundations for a truly monumental building, with a façade modelled after the Parthenon. The structure, which now houses the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery, occupies an entire city block. In the engineer Pierre L’Enfant’s master plan for the capital, it was intended to serve as a kind of nondenominational “church of the republic,” between the White House on one side and the Capitol on the other.

In a way, devoting such a titanic structure to the display of delightful gizmos fulfilled this vision. The model gallery was regarded as a fitting testament to American democracy, demonstrating “the ingenuity of a free people,” as the Pittsfield Sun put it. But the Civil War marked the beginning of the end. At first, the models merely acquired new neighbors: the building became a hospital. “It was, indeed, a curious scene,” Walt Whitman wrote, describing the “high and ponderous glass cases, crowded with models in miniature of every kind,” interspersed with “rows of sick, badly wounded and dying soldiers.” As the war left a trail of new technologies in its wake, the volume of patent applications skyrocketed, and the long galleries were augmented with balconies to provide yet more display space. Samuel Sparks Fisher, who became the Commissioner of Patents in 1869, pointed out that “it must soon become a serious question to determine what disposition is to be made of the models.” The next year, Congress passed new legislation, dropping the requirement for models; a few years after that, the general public was banned from the building, owing to space constraints. The doors of the Temple of Invention began to swing shut, seemingly for good.

The remaining challenge was what to do with the thousands of existing models. They were jammed into corridors and hallways, “haphazardly placed on filing cabinets, desks, book shelves, under chairs, any available space,” according to Bill Ray, a former Life staff photographer who published a guide to the models in the nineteen-seventies. Another fire, in 1877, did away with about a third of the collection. Later, the Smithsonian agreed to accession the thousand it deemed most important—“chosen by someone who only knew or cared about sewing machines,” Ray complained. The rest were boxed up and stored in a series of rented buildings, basements, and even an old livery stable. Finally, in 1925, Congress realized that it had spent at least two hundred thousand dollars moving and storing patent models during the prior forty years, and appropriated another ten thousand to get rid of them once and for all.

A few thousand were returned to the inventors or their heirs, and the Smithsonian eventually claimed a similar number, but the rest were bought, in bulk, by the wealthy pharmaceutical entrepreneur Sir Henry Wellcome, who planned to establish a dedicated patent museum. The Depression deferred that dream, and when Wellcome died the models were sold to Crosby Gaige, a Broadway producer. As Alain Pottage and Brad Sherman recount in “Figures of Invention,” their history of modern patent law, Gaige “staged the opening of selected boxes as a kind of performance for which the public was charged an admission fee”—a form of entertainment that somehow met with “considerable initial success.” Nonetheless, the public appetite for model-unboxing was quickly sated, and, by 1942, the surviving models were scattered to collectors far and wide.

Cascio told me that Hagley began collecting patent models in the early nineteen-sixties; the museum now has the largest private collection in existence. A little more than a hundred are currently on display; thousands more, in varying states of conservation, are shelved in a storage room near the estate’s Christmas decorations. Much of the collection remains uncatalogued. Cascio, a fifty-year-old historian, joined the museum just a few years ago, and told me that, with two thousand models left to process, he expects to retire before the job is done. Every so often, when he opens a box, he finds an item that has lost its label and any other identifying marks. These mystery models—Cascio has come across more than two hundred already—are kept in a separate storeroom near his office, where he occasionally goes to wonder, What the heck does that thing do?

One of Cascio’s mystery models. Cascio speculates that it’s for an airframe of an airship or dirigible, but he’s found nearly twenty-thousand patents for such devices.Photograph courtesy of Hagley Museum and Library

As I made my way along the racks in Hagley’s storage room, pausing every other step to admire a frying pan shaped like a donut or a teal headdress with cutout ear holes and a built-in rubber ice pack, I frequently found myself wondering the same thing. (“That’s a cooling hat for horses or mules,” Cascio explained. “You start to see Americans be more concerned with the treatment of animals around this time.”) A Combined Finger-Nail Cleaner and Envelope-Opener sat next to an Improved Corpse-Preserver. Around the corner, I found a wooden Device for Hatching the Spawn of Fishes, and, nearby, a brass train-like object that billed itself as an Improvement in Apparatus for Cleaning Cess-Pools.

Taken together, the models revealed an entire social history, a stream of new opportunities and unmet needs. In the nineteenth century, as railways and steamships offered novel, if occasionally terrifying, adventures, inventors responded with improved station indicators and cylindrical trunks (the ancestors of today’s wheeled suitcases), along with a plethora of life-preserving rafts, clothing, and furniture. Following the Civil War, many of the factories used to make weapons turned their machines to the manufacture of toys: as children were increasingly removed from the labor force, they needed entertainment, and a series of models for miniature wrestlers, clockwork acrobats, and a toy fish (complete with vibrating tail) promised hours of improved amusement.

Toys weren’t the only field ripe for innovation: throughout the eighteen-hundreds, American life as a whole underwent a fundamental transformation. People increasingly moved to cities like New York, where housing was undersized and overstuffed, and American inventors responded with a wave of patent applications for folding, multifunctional furniture. The Hagley collection includes miniature sofa beds, table-beds, and wardrobe-beds, plus a bed that combines bookshelves, a writing desk, and a tiny chamber pot. Meanwhile, thanks to the rise of urban factories, most Americans no longer worked at home, which was, in turn, reimagined as the site of recreation—itself increasingly subject to commodification. “We have patent models for improved roller skates and ice skates, billiard tables, even an artificial hill for sledding—all the sports, basically,” Cascio said. Above all, the hundreds of miniature machines for making things—bricks, books, buttons—are a reminder that, at scale, mechanized production gave birth to an entirely new kind of American: the consumer. Hagley’s nation of inventors could not have existed without an even larger population that bought stuff, rather than making it or repairing it.

Cascio’s tour ended near a shelf of intricate mousetraps. Beneath the patent models’ charming combination of eccentricity, ingenuity, and extraordinary optimism, I realized, are dozens of stories—the tales of America’s pioneering female, immigrant, and Black inventors; a narrative of technological dead ends and setbacks; a saga of national transformation. But the models themselves are also simply delightful: tiny, precious artifacts from imaginary and mostly unrealized futures. Fortunately, the visitor who finds herself overcome with the desire to possess one is in luck: on any given day, as many as a dozen different models from various private collections are on offer to the highest bidder on eBay and other online auction sites. As Cascio makes his way through his backlog, he often keeps one eye on what emerges from attics and yard sales, searching for items to add to Hagley’s collection. His white whale is a patent model of one of the earliest proto-typewriters, last seen in the nineteen-forties. “It might have gotten thrown out,” he said. “But I like to hope.” ♦


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