In last week’s column about the Thomas Knight Shipyard in Knightville, I mentioned how a Portland ship chandler, Nathaniel Blanchard, had several ships built at the Knight yard in South Portland (although we went by the name of Cape Elizabeth in those years).

Blanchard was a wealthy man, a shipping merchant who owned many ships, and he lived with his wife Phebe and family in high style in the mansion at 90 High St. in Portland, on the corner of Pleasant Street. Due to a long series of financial setbacks, things gradually changed for Nathaniel and his family.

Helen Blanchard, a prolific inventor from Portland. South Portland Historical Society photo

In 1853, Blanchard had invested a lot of money in a clipper ship that was being built by Thomas Knight, when the ship was destroyed by fire at the shipyard. There was no insurance, so the partially-built ship was a total loss and Blanchard had to pay for Thomas Knight to start over and build it from scratch.

In 1854, the ship named the Phoenix, was launched, but this was now during a recession and Blanchard would undoubtedly have been feeling the pinch. In 1856, he put out another major outlay to have Thomas Knight build him another ship. Times were tough, though, as there was an economic panic in 1857, followed by a recession. On Oct. 31, 1863, a building he owned on the corner of Fore Street and Custom House Wharf was destroyed by fire.

This appears to have been the breaking point for Blanchard, as he took out a loan for $14,000 on Nov. 24, 1863, putting up all of his property as collateral – his home on High Street and two separate long blocks of storefronts on Fore Street. With another recession at the end of the Civil War in 1865, his family was not in good financial condition when he died in 1871 and they lost everything.

Nathaniel and Phebe’s daughter, Helen Blanchard, moved to Boston and tried her hand at running a boarding house there. When that proved unsuccessful, she got a job working in a clothing factory and while working with sewing machines, her creative and inventive mind came into play.

After much study and creative thinking, she came up with an idea for a new sewing machine attachment that would do an over-and-over stitch. She had very little money, so she borrowed the money needed to pay the fee required by the U.S. Patent Office, and she applied for and received a patent. This was the first of 28 patents that Helen would apply for and receive from 1873 to 1915; 22 of those patents ended up being used by large commercial clothing factories.

Her zig-zag stitch sewing machine, patented in 1873, became an industry standard.

While in Boston, she patented over-seaming machines, an improvement in methods of uniting knit goods, and a crochet attachment for sewing machines. She also patented an improvement in elastic gorings for the shoe industry.

In the 1880s, Helen lived in Philadelphia with her sister, Louise. Around 1881, Helen and Louise Blanchard started their own company, the Blanchard Overseam Machine Company.

According to the book, “A Woman of the Century,” published in 1893, it was not an easy life for Helen: “The ambition and energy that have marked her life were stimulated by the numberless annoyances and obstacles that always beset the pathway of a persevering inventor, in the shape of Patent Office delays, mercenary infringement of her rights and unscrupulous assaults upon the products of her brain. Among her numerous inventions are the Blanchard over-seaming-machine, the machine for simultaneous sewing and trimming on knitted fabrics, and the crocheting and sewing machine, all of which are in use by immense manufactories and are ranked among the most remarkable mechanical contrivances of the age.”

She moved to New York, where she lived in the 1890s, and continued coming up with new inventions. While in New York, she received patents for securing reeds and cords to edges of material, a sewing needle, a surgical needle, making split needles, a split needle, and a sewing machine. While in New York, she came to be known as a very generous and charitable benefactor, most notably giving her support toward women who were struggling.

Between her profitable business and the royalties from her patents, Helen Blanchard became a very wealthy woman. She would eventually buy back some of the properties in Portland that her family had lost, including the family home on the corner of High and Pleasant Street.

She was living here in Portland in 1901 when she patented a hat-sewing machine, an over-seaming machine, a seam for sewed articles, and a “hat and applying sweatbands thereto.”

Her days of inventing finally came to an end after she suffered a stroke in 1916. Helen died in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1922. She is buried in Evergreen Cemetery in Portland in the Blanchard family plot.

Note to South Portland Historical Society members and friends: If you have not already, it is time to renew your memberships (or please join us if you are not already a member, we need your support).

Memberships start at $15 for individuals and $25 for a family, however feel free to donate at whatever level is comfortable for you. A complete list of membership levels can be found on our website at www.sphistory.org. With the museum presently closed due to the pandemic, our funding is very limited. We hope our members will renew at this time so that the society can avoid the cost of mailing renewal reminders.

To renew or join, simply make your check payable to South Portland Historical Society and mail to us or drop off at the museum at 55 Bug Light Park, South Portland, ME 04106. You can also donate by credit card by calling us at 207-767-7299, using PayPal (our email is [email protected]), or use the donation button at our Online Museum at https://sphistory.pastperfectonline.com. Thank you.

Kathryn Onos DiPhilippo is executive director of the South Portland Historical Society.

 

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