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The Forgotten Genius Behind Your Flat Iron

Ada Harris applied for a patent for the hair straightener in 1893.

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There are four people credited with inventing the hair straightener and none of them actually did. But they always appear in articles about the history of flat irons. The first, Marcel Grateau, actually invented the curling iron for his Parisian salon around 1872. At the same time, the second, a woman named Erica Feldman, is simply credited with using the curling iron to straighten her hair, which isn’t inventing anything at all. The third, Isaac K. Shero, just pressed two clothing irons together and called it a day.

The only “inventor” that actually seemed to invent anything is a Lady Jennifer Bell Schofield who, according to histories like the one on, was a Scottish heiress who invented the flat iron in 1912 because she “wanted to try something different and became obsessed with the idea of straightening hair.”

But the internet, of course, lies. There is absolutely no record of a Lady Jennifer Bell Schofield at all. I talked to librarians in the British Library and genealogists in Scotland, where she was reported to be from. Not only had no Lady Schofield filed a patent for a straightening iron ever in history, there was no record of her birth, marriage, or death. No historical record she had lived at all.

The woman who invented the straight iron wasn’t a Scottish heiress who was obsessed with “something different” at all. She was a school teacher from Indianapolis with quite a different story altogether, a woman forgotten by history. A woman named Ada Harris.

Women’s beauty became a lucrative and salon-oriented industry in the late 19th century when Marcel Grateau opened the first successful salon for women in Paris in 1872. Marcel quickly became renowned for his iconic “Marcel wave” and had designed his own curling iron by 1890. But for every woman looking for some curl, there’s another looking to lose hers. The first patent for a straightening iron was filed just three years later on November 3rd, 1893.

“Be it known,” the patent application begins, “that I, ADA HARRIS, of Indianapolis, county of Marion, and State of Indiana, have invented a certain new and useful Hair- Straightener.”

The patent goes on to describe the grandmother of the modern hair straightener: a device “heated like a curling iron” with two flat faces held together by a hinge that “when they press the hair will make it straight.” The only difference is that Harris’s invention also includes a toothed or comb portion to separate the hair while straightening.

The drawing of her invention in her patent submission looks pretty similar to kitchen tongs. In a small black and white line drawing, the straightener has two handles that hinge in the center so that the user can clamp the irons together. Because this was 1893, there was no plug for the iron; it would have been heated over a fire or on a stove.

The next year, records show, Ada Harris carried her prototype and her drawings from the patent submission all the way across the country from her home in Indianapolis to the California Midwinter International Exposition of 1894, a extension of the World’s Fair tours famous for showcasing inventions around the world. There she displayed her invention in a booth, and probably tried to find investors to back her project, or a company to buy her patent.

But Ada Harris never built an empire of hair products. Her stint in hair, like her place in history, was almost completely forgotten. I wanted to find out who she was.

“My invention relates to a hair straightener whose purpose is to straighten curly hair,” Ada Harris wrote in her patent filing for the hair straightener, “and is especially of service to; colored people in straightening their hair.”

Ada Harris in the Indianapolis Star.
Photo: Indianapolis Star

According to census data, there were only five Ada Harrises living in Indianapolis in 1890. One died a month before the permit was filed, and one was born the month after that. One Ada Harris was 9 years old. There were only two Ada Harrises old enough to file a permit in November 1893, but only one of them was black.

Ada Harris was born in Kentucky in 1870. She moved to Indianapolis with her mother, Anna Toliver, at some point during her childhood. At the age of 18, with a high school degree, Harris became a school teacher.

The year after Harris submitted her patent for the first hair straightener, she became civically active. Harris had been a school teacher since the late 1880s, but in 1894, she found a way to use that experience to work toward civil justice. Harris was one of three women to found the Idle Hands Needle Club, which, as Dr. Earline Rae Ferguson wrote in the book Stepping Forward: Black Women in Africa and the Americas, “used varied strategies to collect from the general public the means to provide fuel in winter and food and clothes for their poorer neighborhoods.”

She was, as the Indianapolis Freeman called her, a “modern” woman, who in 1890 was one of the few Indianapolis women who rode a bicycle.

“People I interviewed who knew her said things like, "If there was something that needed addressing that no one else wanted to touch, you [give] it to Miss Ada." Dr. Ferguson, an assistant professor of history at the University of Rhode Island, told me.

Ada Harris was incredibly proactive in community service. She moved to the neighborhood of Norwood, where she taught, and radically uplifted the place. She established and founded a boys’ club, which by 1905 had raised so much money that it purchased property to house a gymnasium, a reading room, and bathrooms. She also raised money to buy and help run a community grocery store. As the Indianapolis Star wrote in 1909 in an article about the revitalization of the neighborhood, “Miss Harris has been busy in stirring ambition.”

By 1912, Harris was an established community leader. She was still teaching public school, an officer in the Corinthian Baptist church’s club, and a reporter and compositor for the city’s two black newspapers, the Indianapolis World and the Indianapolis Freeman. By 1914, Harris’s club (later called the Women’s Civic Club) had more than 300 women members. This club would later merge with the Indianapolis branch of the NAACP — one of the only branches in the country where women held leadership positions. In 1917, after becoming a public notary, Harris held a voting registration party at her home to try and register black women to vote.

The black women’s hair industry did make its home in Indianapolis eventually — with or without Ada Harris. In 1910, Sarah Breedlove relocated her business to Indianapolis. Four years earlier, Breedlove had married Charles Walker and rebranded herself Madam C.J. Walker. Her story, of course, is better known.

As Henry Louis Gates Jr. wrote in a piece about Madam Walker in The Root, one piece of entrepreneurial genius Madam C.J. Walker had was improving the hot comb popularized by Marcel Grateau to have wider teeth. In a scant five years, she built an empire of black women’s beauty. Her new factory and house in downtown Indianapolis were less than six miles from the neighborhood in East Indianapolis where Ada Harris lived and worked. Walker’s company made black hair into an empire employing and training thousands of black women.

There’s no record to say whether or not Madam C.J. Walker and Ada Harris ever met. But it seems likely they would have. Both were activists and involved with the NAACP. If anything, Ada Harris would have known about Madam C.J. Walker. When Madam C.J. Walker died in 1919 as the wealthiest black woman in the country, Ada Harris was still teaching school in her East Indianapolis community. She was still organizing activists and helping run a community grocery store.

Ada Harris died on September 15th, 1927. Her one-line obituary in the Indianapolis Star said she died of hemiplegia, probably a stroke. She never did anything with her patent for the hair straightener, the first of its kind, maybe because she didn’t have the money to produce it, or maybe, simply, her interests changed with age.

“My greatest ambition,” she told the Indianapolis Star in 1909, “is for my race. I want to see my people succeed. I want to see them have equal chance. [...] I shall have spent my life for my race.”

Ada Harris isn’t known for her groundbreaking work revitalizing an Indianapolis suburb, or her bold decision to run a community grocery store with three other women. She isn’t known for the patent she filed that became the grandmother of our modern day straightener. Ada Harris isn’t known at all. She was lost to the pages of history, until now. Her legacy might have been forgotten, but it shouldn’t remain that way. Ada Harris deserves to be remembered for her work and her life and that all-important household appliance we use to fix our hair.

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