All the Names She Could not Bear
A Salty Tale
I wanted this blog to be about patents, not Ruth Van Tellingen. Or should I call her Ruth Bendel? Or Ruth Elizabeth Thompson? I’m getting ahead of myself. Before we delve into Ruth’s life, let’s review the concept of patents as they pertain to archaeology.
As many know, a patent refers to a legally-recognized title on intellectual property that allows an individual or group to control the production and sale of specific designs. In the U.S. patents, as a legal concept, extend back to the late 1600s when some individual states would grant legal rights to an idea or invention. Federal interventions on designs and innovations were not introduced until The Patent Act of 1790. The registration number associated with a granted patent is often printed on items that become artifacts. These numbers provide a multi-tool for archaeological interpretations. With them, we can often identify a purpose or maker of an artifact and a period for the use and production of an item. Sometimes, patents allow us to discover unexpected insights into our social pasts.
The CAP Patent that Gave Paws
About a year ago, I was sitting in the CAP lab researching a ceramic bear. The item was uncovered during our 2020 Service Road Construction Project (read more here). We had plans to use the artifact in a conference presentation covering Children’s lives on MSU’s campus (read more here).
When searching the patent for the bear I found that it is not merely a decorative item, but rather a clever and original design for two interlocking condiment dispensers (salt, pepper, oil, etc.) (read more here). Something else caught my attention– something other than the unconventional nickname, “Huggers”. It was the title associated with the patent, filed on May 6th, 1947… The name belonged to… a woman?
Ruth Van Tellingen Bendel. Let me be clear. I was not surprised a woman had invented a new design or kindled an original concept. My eyebrows were raised because the idea was documented and credited to her. Archeologists, like anyone looking into the past, generally struggle to find and verify diversity in the past, especially when it comes to historically marginalized or oppressed groups. Without identifiers like patents, it can be difficult, if not impossible, to identify who created something. Objects themselves do not have social identities– humans assign them. And because restricted and privileged groups have historically held the pen that writes the Western narrative, many historical accounts overestimate the contributions of certain individuals to society. In the same stroke, the experiences of people outside of the most privileged circles have been silenced or ignored (1).
Woman with a Peppered Past
So what can we know about the creator of this patent? Ruth Elizabeth Thompson was born in Hinsdale, Illinois, in 1910. Census records tell us she married Oscar Van Tellingen, a salesman from Iowa, and assumed the role of a “Housewife and commercial artist” by the age of 30 (see census data below).
Her artistry, including several children’s books, received mixed reviews (2). While active in illustration, she also commissioned figurines created for the Chicago Royal China and Novelty Company (3), including the multiple Huggers in different animal forms. Her interlocking bear design was conceived in 1947, but not submitted for a patent until 1949. Our bear lacks the name “Bendel,” which Ruth added after her second marriage to Victor T. Bendel, in 1948. It is therefore likely one of the first bears off the production line.
Ruth’s shaker patent, granted in 1951, preceded the women’s liberation movement (4) in the United States by more than a decade. Women first patented a product in the U.S. in 1809, but as of 2020, the percentage of self-identified women contributing to annual patents remains less than 22% (5; 6). By the time she died in 1986, Ruth had acquired at least two more patents, several copyrights, and was listed as an author on multiple books. Between two CAP fellows, we found seven names associated with Ruth’s life. Even by today’s standards, her intellectual capital and enigmatic flair for unique titles would be considered remarkable.
Time to Shake It Up
Want to explore patents yourself? Here are two possible methods:
- To search patents through the U.S. government portal navigate to:
In the “Query” box type in the patent number.
For example, Ruth’s patent no. 2,560,755.
The landing page should provide a patent number and issue date. To view the scanned file, click “Images” at the bottom. Have in mind that most patents are a few pages long, so you’ll want to download more than the landing page of the PDF. It is also worthwhile to note that some patents may have a number in front of them, which indicates the type of patent represented.
- Google now offers a patent look-up that’s even easier:
Type in the name or number and anything affiliated with an individual should show. Between patents and copyrights, we found the following names associated with our Ruth to stamp her intellectual and artistic endeavors. Give ‘er a go and see what you find.
Ruth Elizabeth Thompson.
Ruth E. Van Tellingen.
Ruth Thompson Van Tellingen.
Ruth Van Tellingen Bendel.
Ruth V. Bendel.
Ruth Thompson Bendel.
- Trouillot, Michel-Rolph (1995) Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History. Beacon Press, Boston, Massachusetts. Link