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Andrew Jackson Signed Patent for Improvement in the Washing Machine
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ANDREW JACKSON. Partially Printed Document Signed as President, co-signed by Edward Livingston as Secretary of State, and Roger B. Taney as Attorney General. Patent for “new and useful improvement in the washing machine,” to South Carolina inventor Silvanus Minton, April 14, 1832. With Seal of the United States affixed. 2 pp., 11 x 14⅝ in.

Inventory #26760       SOLD — please inquire about other items

The patent grants for fourteen years the full and exclusive right and liberty of making, constructing, using and vending to others to be used, the said improvement…” which is described on the second page: “This washing machine resembles the old fashioned cider mill, in the construction of the rollers which are to effect the washing. Two fluted rollers, each ten inches in diameter, are placed one over the other, with a suitable trough beneath them. The flutes, or teeth, mashing in like those of a cog wheel. The upper roller is borne down by weights, allowing it to recede from the lower one.”[1]

Washing Machine Technology
Developed in England and Germany, the first English patent for a washing machine was issued in 1691. One of the first innovations was the use of enclosed containers with textured sides. The user would use a stick to press and rotate the clothes against the sides of the container to remove dirt. The first American washing machine patent was issued in 1797 to Nathaniel Briggs of New Hampshire. In 1829, Amos Larcom of Watervliet, New York, received a patent for a washing machine. Minton’s 1832 patent was one of nineteen issued that year alone for washing machines.

Beginning of the American Patent System
At the Constitutional Convention, the delegates agreed unanimously to the recommendation of James Madison and Charles Pinckney to include patent powers. Article 1, Section 8 calls for Congress to promote “the progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.”

The first Patent Act, passed on April 10, 1790, assigned the power to grant patents to a board consisting of the Secretary of State, the Secretary of War, and the Attorney General. As Secretary of State, Jefferson personally examined all applications. Strictly interpreting the requirement for originality and practicality, he approved only 57 patents under the initial Act. Other pressing duties left the Board (three quarters of the President’s cabinet), with insufficient time for such a thorough review of patent applications.

Jefferson privately lobbied Congress for changes. On February 21, 1793, the revised act charged the Secretary of State with issuing a patent to any applicant who complied with a set of prescribed formalities, swore his invention was original, and paid a fee, leaving disputes about the novelty and validity of an invention for the courts to decide. Crucially, it also allowed patents not just for totally new inventions, but also for any “new and useful improvement” to an existing product, a definition that remains to this day.

After the president and secretary of state signed each patent, the attorney general certified it, and the secretary of state affixed the seal of the United States. This system remained in effect for more than 40 years, by which time patents were being issued at a rate of 600 per year. To stem the tide of derivative or useless inventions, in 1836 Congress returned to the practice of having applications examined before patents were issued. Congress also removed the requirement for the president to sign patents at that time.

Ownership of Letters Patent
Signed patents were sent to and were the property of the original inventor.A clerk would have recorded a copy by hand to be retained in the patent office records.Over the years, many of these historic items have been lost or destroyed, with fewer sold or passed down.

The Fire that Destroyed the Patent Officeand Most Early Patent Records
On December 15, 1836, at 3:00 in the morning, a messenger sleeping in the building awoke to thick smoke emanating from the basement. He quickly roused his colleagues. Outside the patent room, they encountered blocked doors, heavy smoke, and unreachable windows. They were unable to save anything. The fire department arrived, but too late; the Patent Office burned to the ground. An estimated 7,000 models, 9,000 drawings, and 230 books—as well as applications, correspondence, and patent copies—were destroyed by the blaze.

Some of the lost information was recovered from inventors who still held the original patents, and from published notices. However, patents issued between 1790 and 1822 had already expired, removing any financial interest inventors would have had to cooperate. Of the estimated 10,000 patents issued before 1836, only 2,800 records were ever recovered.[2] Very few of the original patents survive to this day.

The inventor, Silvanus Minton (1791-1880) was born out of wedlock in South Carolina and raised by Quakers Thomas Minton and his wife. He married Mary Morris (1788-1827) in 1813 in Anderson, South Carolina. After she died in childbirth, he married Virginia Jane Quails (ca. 1808-aft. 1880) in 1828 in Pendleton, South Carolina. He was the father of at least eighteen children. In the 1830s, Minton moved to Cherokee County in northeastern Alabama, where he was engaged in agriculture. In the 1870s, they moved to central Arkansas, where they lived with one of his daughters and her family. He was a Baptist minister, founding churches in Cherokee County, Alabama (1835) and Prairie County, Arkansas (1870s).

Edward Livingston (1764-1836) graduated from the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University), practiced law in New York City, and represented New York in Congress from 1795-1801. He was appointed by President Thomas Jefferson as U.S. Attorney for New York, and also served as Mayor of New York from 1801 to 1803, helping the city survive a major yellow fever epidemic that nearly cost him his life. As he was recovering, it was discovered that $45,000 of Customs House funds had been embezzled. Though Livingston had no connection to the crime, it was perpetrated by a clerk under his supervision; he took responsibility, resigned as Mayor and U.S. Attorney, sold all of his property, and began reimbursing the federal government. He left his children with family, and moved to New Orleans to rebuild his fortune. Fluent in French and very well connected, he established a successful law practice.

In payment for winning a case, Livingston received a parcel of batture (where the Mississippi River’s bank meets the land) that he tried to develop. 12 years of legal disputes included his suit against Thomas Jefferson, seeking $100,000 in damages, alleging personal malice in the President’s decision against Livingston. The pair had been previously pitted against each other by Aaron Burr in the election of 1800. Jefferson hired lawyers George Hay, Littleton Waller Tazewell and William Wirt for his defense. Chief Justice John Marshall, despite being no friend of Jefferson, dismissed the case on December 5, 1811, due to lack of jurisdiction. In 1820, New Orleans and Livingston finally came to an agreement that settled all related disputes. 

Few civilians played a greater role in defending New Orleans during the War of 1812. Livingston inspired the ethnically-mixed population to prepare to resist a British invasion. In 1814–15, he acted as adviser and an aide-de-camp to his friend Major General Andrew Jackson. Most important, he secured amnesty for the pirate Jean Lafitte and followers who offered to help defend the city; they were instrumental in the American victory in the Battle of New Orleans.

He was elected to the Louisiana legislature in 1820, and in 1822 was tasked with revising the Louisiana Civil Code and Code of Procedure, which had been based on French law. He represented Louisiana in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1823-1829, and in the Senate from 1829 to 1831, when he resigned to serve as President Andrew Jackson’s Secretary of State (1831-1833) and Minister Plenipotentiary to France (1833-1835).

Roger B. Taney (1777-1864) was born in Maryland and graduated from Dickinson College in 1796. He read law in Annapolis, and was admitted to the bar in 1799. In 1806, he married Anne Phoebe Charlton Key (1783-1855), sister of Francis Scott Key, and they had six daughters. Taney established a law practice in Frederick, Maryland, and was elected to the House of Delegates as a Federalist. Breaking with the Federalists to support the War of 1812, he joined the Democratic-Republican Party. He was elected in 1816 to the Maryland Senate, and in 1823, he moved his practice to Baltimore. From 1827 to 1831, Taney was Attorney General of Maryland. In July, 1831 Andrew Jackson appointed Taney as Attorney General in the wake of the Petticoat Affair. In November 1833, in a dispute over the Second Bank of the United States, Jackson fired his Secretary of the Treasury and appointed Taney in a recess appointment. Nine months later, the U.S. Senate rejected Jackson’s nomination of Taney, the time any cabinet nominee was rejected. In January 1835, Jackson nominated Taney as an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, but opponents in the Senate refused to act on the nomination. However, that July, Jackson nominated Taney to succeed John Marshall as Chief Justice, and Taney was confirmed in March 1836. Over the next three decades, Taney presided over a shift against Marshall’s nationalism in favor of states’ rights. His 1857 opinion for the court in Dred Scott v. Sanford declared that Congress could not prohibit slavery from U.S. territories, and gave rise to not unreasonable fear that the Court was moving towards the eventual nationalization of slavery.[3]  Cherry-picking precedents to create a counterfactual history that   is widely considered to be the worst ever made by the U.S. Supreme Court. During the Civil War, Taney challenged President Abraham Lincoln’s broad interpretation of executive power, going so far as holding that the president could not suspend the writ of habeas corpus (despite the circumstances, which clearly fit the Constitution’s authorization).

Henry L. Ellsworth (1791-1858) was born in Connecticut and graduated from Yale University in 1810. He studied law at Tapping Reeve’s Litchfield Law School in 1811, and later practiced law while also farming. In 1835, President Andrew Jackson appointed him as superintendent of patents. When Congress created the new office of Commissioner of Patents, Ellsworth became the first Commissioner of the U.S. Patent Office, a position he held from 1836 to 1845. He then served as an agent for the purchase and settlement of public land with an office in Lafayette, Indiana, until 1857.

[1] Thomas P. Jones, ed., “List of American Patents Which Issued in April, 1832. With Remarks and Exemplifications, by the Editor,” Journal of the Franklin Institute of the State of Pennsylvania, Devoted to the Mechanic Arts, Manufactures, General Science, and the Recording of American and Other Patented Inventions (October 1832): 237.

[2] Kendall S. Dood, Patent Drawings: Milestone Documents in the National Archives (Washington: National Archives and Records Administration, 1986), 2.

[3] The Court’s horrific racist overreach provided a justification for slavery anywhere: “[African Americans] had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit. He was bought and sold, and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic, whenever a profit could be made by it….”