When Innovations of the 1930s Came to Town

22, November 2017

NHPRC logoThe Picturing 1930s St. Louis: Sievers Studio Collection Project is made possible by an NHPRC grant from the National Archives.

Who hasn’t thought “there has to be a better way to do this” or “if only such a thing existed”? Well, the exhibitors at the National Inventors’ Congress went beyond these idle musings to turn their daydreams into inventions!

The National Inventors’ Congress was a periodic national convention that landed at the Chase Hotel in St. Louis on November 22, 1932. The five-day affair simultaneously served as an opportunity for amateur inventors and small companies to exhibit what they’d been working on and an educational forum for inventors to learn all about patents and bringing their inventions to market. Albert G. Burns, organizer and president of the convention, hoped that the event would connect inventors and their creations with manufacturers and sales companies interested in producing and marketing the new innovations.

Black-and-white photo of Col. Werner with his inventionsCol. Paul Werner with a variety of his inventions, November 1932. Photo by Harold Sneckner. Missouri Historical Society Collections.

The St. Louis edition of the convention, which was documented by Sievers Studio photographers, drew inventors from across the country, with inventions ranging from practical solutions for everyday annoyances to visionary machines that would revolutionize life. One inventor displayed a model of a dirigible that he claimed could travel nearly 500 miles an hour. Another showed a vacuum motor that he believed would allow for travel to Mars and other planets, claiming it could go 100,000 miles without any gasoline! Then there was Mrs. Minnie Taylor of the Taylor-Mulford Manufacturing Company, who exhibited a vegetable-peeling process that required hardly any effort on the part of the person doing the peeling, and the inventor of a footboard that attached to a bed frame in order to keep blankets from falling off the end of a bed while a person slept.

Two black-and-white photos of woman demonstrating her blanket-pinning footboard inventionA woman demonstrates the need for a footboard that keeps blankets from falling off the bed, November 1932. Photo by Isaac Sievers. Missouri Historical Society Collections.

At the end of the National Inventors’ Congress, gold, silver, and bronze medals were awarded for the best inventions. Despite the range of the event’s participants, local inventors were well represented among the winners. Fred A. Miller, of St. John’s Station (probably modern-day St. John, Missouri), received a gold medal for his automatic radio burglar alarm that would broadcast a robbery as soon as it was committed, take a picture of the room where it was installed, and even sound a fire alarm. W. W. Barry, of Portland, Oregon, won a silver medal for his airplane-control device. Rounding out the winners was Dr. Elizabeth Smith, of St. Louis, who earned a bronze medal for the Dialite, a telephone attachment that automatically lit up the dial when the receiver was lifted.

Black-and-white photo of Dr. Elizabeth Sullivan's Dialite inventionA man and woman examine the Dialite, November 1932. Photo by Harold Sneckner. Missouri Historical Society Collections.

And, of course, what would a convention be without the crowning of a queen? The honor of Queen Patent Pending was awarded to 17-year-old Virginia Gemmer, daughter of a St. Louis family known for both politics and inventions. Her grandfather, Edward A. Noonan, was mayor of St. Louis from 1889 to 1893; her father, Walter S. Gemmer, invented tramway devices; and her mother, Florence Noonan Gemmer, developed multiple pieces of safety-focused playground equipment.

Black-and-white photo of Queen Patent Pending Virginia Gemmer on a see-sawQueen Patent Pending Virginia Gemmer (right) poses on a safety see-saw invented by her mother, November 1932. Photo by Harold Sneckner. Missouri Historical Society Collections.

Thanks to the Sievers Studio Collection, we can gain some unique insight into the problems inventors of the 1930s hoped to solve, as well as the products and machines they saw as the way of the future.

—Lauren Sallwasser, NHPRC Project Archivist

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