9 Facts About Pioneering Lawyer and Activist Belva Lockwood

Wikimedia // Public Domain
Wikimedia // Public Domain

The first woman to argue before the Supreme Court and the first female presidential candidate to receive votes, Belva Lockwood was a trailblazer who wouldn’t take “no” for an answer.

1. AS A CHILD, SHE TRIED TO PERFORM MIRACLES.

Born in 1830 to a farmer and his wife in Royalton, New York, Belva Ann Bennett was the second of five children. Raised in a Christian family, she grew up taking the Bible literally. “I supposed faith only was necessary to the re-enactment of the miracles of Scripture,” she later explained [PDF].

Ten-year-old Belva decided to test this supposition by walking on water at the mill pond near her family’s home, but succeeded only in soaking her skirts and undergarments. Undeterred, she decided to try to raise the dead. She trooped to the local cemetery, where the child of a neighbor had recently been buried. But despite focusing with all her might, Belva was unable to resurrect the dead child. Believing that the fault lay with her concentration, and not the notion that her faith would give her supernatural abilities, she attempted a third miracle. Recalling the Bible verse that declares that faith as small as a mustard seed can move mountains, she concluded that if an adult believer could move a mountain, she, a child, could presumably move a hill. “I selected a small hill and concentrated all my will-power upon it,” she wrote, “but the hill did not move.”

After this third failed attempt, Belva gave up trying to recreate Biblical miracles, but she did not lose her faith in God. As an adult, she would say "I have not raised the dead, but I have awakened the living ... The general effect of attempting things beyond us, even though we fail, is to enlarge and liberalize the mind. With work and school I soon abandoned the miracles, but few undertakings were so great that I did not aspire to them.”

2. SHE PURSUED HIGHER EDUCATION—EVEN THOUGH IT WAS "UNLADYLIKE."

As a child, Belva was educated in the one-room schoolhouses of local “common schools” (public schools [PDF]) in Niagara County, New York. At age 14, she graduated and was immediately offered a summer teaching job by the local school board. (During this period, men usually taught the winter school terms, when boys were freed from agricultural work and could attend, while women taught girls and younger children during the summer sessions.)

Belva used the money she earned teaching to spend one year attending the Royalton Academy, a local private high school meant to prepare students for college or business. Belva wanted to attend college, but her father vetoed the idea, telling her, “Girls should get married; only boys go to college.” So at 18, Belva married Uriah McNall, a 22-year-old farmer and sawmill worker, and less than a year later gave birth to a daughter, whom the couple named Lura.

But a few years later, Uriah caught his right foot in some machinery at the sawmill and was severely injured. He spent two years as an invalid and died of consumption in the spring of 1853. Belva was now a 22-year-old widow with a toddler. She believed that the best way to provide for her own and her daughter’s futures was through more education, so she used the little money left by her husband to enroll in the local Gasport Academy, a secondary school with a college-preparatory curriculum.

Belva’s family and neighbors scorned her decision to continue her education, saying it was “unheard of” for a married woman, even a widowed one. Her father denounced her desire for knowledge as unwomanly and backed up his assertion by quoting St. Paul, but Belva didn’t waver.

Midway through her second term at Gasport Academy, she was recruited by the local school board to take over the position of a male teacher who had been fired. She used her wages from teaching to save up for the next phase of her education. Leaving Lura with her parents, who moved to Illinois, Belva moved 60 miles away to attend the co-ed Genesee Wesleyan Seminary beginning in the fall of 1854. (Founded and run by the Methodist Episcopal Church, this “seminary” was essentially a high school, not a training for ministers.) Belva applied herself to her studies at Genesee, where she realized that while female students were pursuing acceptably “ladylike” studies such as rhetoric and fine arts (and, interestingly, science courses), male students were taking mathematics and classics courses to prepare for Genesee College, the institute of higher education then attached to the seminary. Yet from its opening in 1850, Genesee College had admitted both men and women, and allowed women access to all its classes.

Upon finishing her first term at the seminary, Belva applied to enter the college. The preceptress (head of women’s education) attempted to dissuade her, implying that it was unfeminine, while the Genesee College president seemed skeptical that Belva would actually complete an undergraduate degree. But Belva insisted that she was serious, and upon passing the entrance exams, was admitted to the scientific course of study.

During the 1850s, when Belva attended, women represented about 15 percent of the student body at Genesee College, there were no female faculty members, and female students attended separate classes from male students. The course of study was rigorous, and student life was heavily regulated—newspapers weren’t allowed, nor was most socializing between the sexes. But Belva buckled down, focusing on her studies. Around this time, she also developed an interest in law, attending lectures by a local attorney in addition to her Genesee classes. In June 1857, after three years of study, Belva graduated with honors, earning her bachelor of science.

3. SHE DEMANDED EQUAL PAY FOR EQUAL WORK.

Upon graduating, Belva was offered the preceptress position at a common school near her hometown of Royalton, a job that allowed her to reassume custody of her daughter. As preceptress, Belva supervised three teachers, handled discipline, and taught classes including rhetoric, botany, and higher math. But though the school board knew Belva was a widow with a child to support, she was paid $400 annually, while the male teachers she managed made $600, and male administrators made even more. Belva had been encountering gendered pay inequity since she started teaching at age 14 and discovered that male teachers were being paid twice her salary for the same work—“an indignity not to be tamely borne,” as she later said. The school board rebuffed 14-year-old Belva’s complaint, and 26-year-old Belva faced the same dismissive attitude. But Belva continued to teach for nearly a decade, before moving to Washington, D.C. in 1866, where she would take her equal-pay fight to Congress.

Belva had become involved in the women’s rights movement, and while living in the capital she discovered that female government employees earned less than men, and that the civil service limited the number of female clerks who could be hired. Belva heavily lobbied Rep. Samuel Arnell, chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor, to introduce legislation to mandate equal pay for federal workers and outlaw discrimination in hiring based on gender. Arnell was sympathetic to women’s issues—he had previously submitted a bill to give married women in D.C. the right to own property—and in 1870 he submitted H.R. 1571, “A bill to do justice to the female employees of the government,” which had been drafted in part by Belva. Unfortunately, by the time the bill passed in 1872, it had become so watered-down that it merely “authorized” federal departments to appoint women to higher-level clerk positions and to offer them the same compensation as men—but it didn’t require departments to do so. The version of the bill that passed also lifted the cap on the number of female clerks who could be hired. While less radical than Belva’s original draft, the new law did help women: During the 1870s, the percentage of women working for the Treasury Department who were paid a salary over $900 increased from 4 percent to 20 percent.

4. SHE TRIED TO BECOME A DIPLOMAT.

Belva wanted to enter the consular service, and during the administration of President Andrew Johnson she applied for a position as a consular officer in Ghent, Belgium—an unheard-of position for a woman. Belva prepared dutifully for the civil service exam, refreshing her German and studying international law, but the State Department never replied to her application. In 1881, she requested that President Garfield appoint her head of the U.S. diplomatic mission in Brazil, arguing that her facility with international law made her an appropriate choice, but her petition was ignored. A few years later, she pushed President Grover Cleveland to appoint her minister to Turkey. Cleveland instead selected a man rumored to be a womanizer; in response, Belva sent the president a biting letter, noting sarcastically, “The selection of S. S. Cox could not have been improved upon. The only danger is, that he will attempt to suppress polygamy in that country by marrying all of the women himself.”

With respect to her diplomatic ambition, Belva was way ahead of her time—no woman would become an American consular officer until Lucile Atcherson Curtis in 1923.

5. SHE OVERCAME REJECTION TO BECOME A LAWYER.

In 1867, 37-year-old Belva met a 65-year-old dentist named Ezekiel Lockwood. Within a year, she had married him and adopted his surname, though she would sign documents and letters “Belva Ann Lockwood” rather than “Mrs. Ezekiel Lockwood,” as was customary. Belva told her new husband that she was bored with teaching and fascinated by the law. She nursed this interest by helping Ezekiel in his side business as a veteran-pension claim agent. Having determined to become a lawyer, Belva spent her free time reading legal commentaries, but she could not find an attorney to take her on as an apprentice.

Then, in October 1869, an acquaintance of Ezekiel’s who happened to be the president of the law school at Columbian College invited the couple to hear him give a lecture. Belva was inspired to formally apply for entry to Columbian, located in D.C., but the response she received was a “slap in the face” [PDF]. The school’s president wrote to Belva saying that Columbian’s faculty had decided “that [her] admission would not be expedient, as it would be likely to distract the attention of the young men.”

Luckily, National University—which had just begun operating in Washington, D.C., in 1870—soon announced it would begin admitting female students to its law program. Belva and 14 other women matriculated in 1871; two years later just she and one other woman had completed the course. But faced with the prospect of having to grant law degrees to women, and receiving blowback from male students and alumni, National University administrators balked and refused to issue Belva or her classmate diplomas. Belva devised a way to force their hand.

The university’s charter named the current president of the United States as its chancellor ex officio, so in January 1873, Belva wrote to then-President Ulysses S. Grant, explaining her situation in a polite, supplicating manner. After receiving no reply over the summer, in September she wrote another letter, much shorter and blunter, saying, “I desire to say to you that I have passed through the curriculum of study in this school, and am entitled to, and demand, my diploma.” The White House never responded directly to Belva’s letters, but around two weeks after her second note she received her diploma. A few days after that, she was admitted to the District of Columbia bar. Belva became a prolific attorney, practicing in multiple areas of law, including government pension claims, criminal defense, marriage and divorce, and patent law.

6. CONGRESS PASSED A LAW SO SHE COULD PRACTICE BEFORE THE SUPREME COURT.

When she began practicing law, Belva found a small number of supporters among judges and fellow lawyers, but she primarily faced scorn and discrimination. David Kellogg Cartter, chief justice of what was then the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia (now the District Court for the District of Columbia), told her frankly, “Madam, if you come into this court we shall treat you like a man.” Associate Justice Arthur MacArthur commented, “Bring on as many women lawyers as you choose: I do not believe they will be a success.” And while she was able to practice in the D.C. courts, she did not have access to the federal courts.

In 1873, the widow of the inventor of a torpedo boat used by the Union during the Civil War engaged Belva to sue the federal government, charging that they had infringed upon her late husband’s patent and demanding $100,000 in damages. Belva needed to argue the case before the United States Court of Claims, but her bid for admission was unanimously rejected by the court—the judges argued that allowing women to become attorneys would harm their families as well as society at large. Belva continued to work on claims cases, but unable to argue them in court, she had to hire another attorney to plead before judges. This was a poor solution, especially after one male lawyer that Belva hired took “three days to say very badly what I could have said well in an hour,” she fumed. He lost the case. Belva filed an appeal to the Supreme Court and set about obtaining admission to the nation’s highest court so that she could argue the case herself.

A male colleague nominated Belva for admission to the bar of the United States Supreme Court in October 1876, but she was rejected by a vote of six to three, with Chief Justice Morrison R. Waite speaking for the majority when he declared that “none but men are admitted to practice before [the Supreme Court] … in accordance with immemorial usage in England and practice in all of the states.” The court would not change this unless “required by statute.” So Belva decided to change the law.

In 1874, at Belva’s urging, Rep. Benjamin Butler of Massachusetts drafted and submitted a bill to the House allowing the admission of qualified female attorneys to the bar of the Supreme Court, but while it passed the Judiciary Committee, the bill died on the floor. A second bill was introduced a few months later, but didn’t make it out of committee. At this point, Belva decided to draft her own bill, which became known as “An Act to Relieve Certain Legal Disabilities of Women.” Rep. John M. Glover of Ohio introduced “the Lockwood Bill,” and after Belva testified at a committee hearing, the House Judiciary Committee recommended the measure unanimously. On February 26, 1878, the House passed the bill with a vote of 169 to 87. It then spent a year winding its way through the more-conservative Senate, facing considerable opposition. Belva lobbied hard for her bill, presenting Congress with a petition supporting it signed by 160 prominent D.C. lawyers. After passionate speeches by three senators who advocated the bill, the Senate passed it 39 to 20. President Rutherford B. Hayes signed the Belva bill into law on February 15, 1879 [PDF].

Less than a month later, on March 3, Belva became the first woman admitted to the bar of the Supreme Court of the United States—and “no objection was raised,” reported The New York Times. In 1880, she became the first female lawyer to argue before the nation’s highest court in the case Kaiser v. Stickney. In 1906, she represented the Eastern Cherokee before the Supreme Court and won a $5 million settlement.

Her problems weren’t over, however. Each time Belva had a case in a new jurisdiction—a new state or county—she had to convince a new set of judges to allow her to practice. She became the first woman to practice law in Maryland in 1880 when she argued a case in the Frederick County Circuit Court, but the next year she was blocked from appearing in court in Charles County in the same state. She also became the first female attorney to practice in the federal courts of Virginia and Massachusetts, but when she attempted to argue for her admission to the state bar of New York, the presiding justice snapped at her to sit down and be quiet. Despite successfully lobbying Congress to pass a law on her behalf, Belva’s fight was not over.

7. SHE USED A SEXIST LAW TO HER ADVANTAGE.

In one criminal case, Belva was acting as the defense attorney for a woman who had shot a police officer. The defendant confessed to her actions on the stand, to Belva’s dismay. Now she had to defend someone who had already admitted to the crime, a seemingly impossible task. But Belva knew something important: The woman’s husband had told her to do it. Belva explained to the jury that the woman’s husband had done something that put him in fear of law enforcement, leading him to instruct his wife to “load a gun and shoot the first officer that tried to force his way into the house.” Belva argued that since 19th-century common law legally obligated a wife to obey her spouse, the husband had, in effect, actually been the one to shoot the police officer. The wife was simply his instrument for performing the violence. “You would not have a woman resist her husband?” Belva asked rhetorically. She urged the court to bring the husband from out of state and try him for the crime instead. The jury found her argument convincing, and pronounced her client not guilty.

8. SHE MADE NEWS BY RIDING A TRICYCLE.

Belva caused quite a stir in the early 1880s when she purchased a tricycle and began riding it around Washington, D.C., covering several miles a day as she conducted her business. (It was, at the time, still unusual for women to ride bicycles or tricycles.) In 1882, The Washington Post declared the sight of “Mrs. Lawyer Lockwood” on her tricycle to be one of the “objects of greatest interest to the visiting stranger and curiosity seeker” in the capital, alongside the Washington Monument and Ford’s Theatre. Newspapers and magazines across the country noted Belva’s passion for pedaling when she ran for president in 1884, with the Louisville, Kentucky, Courier-Journal publishing a sketch of her “awheel” to publicize her visit to town and The New York Times mocking public interest in the matter as the “tricycle scandal.”

9. SHE RAN FOR PRESIDENT—AND RECEIVED SEVERAL THOUSAND VOTES.

A black-and-white engraving of a satirical parade of the Belva Lockwood Club in New Jersey
A satirical Belva Lockwood parade in New Jersey around 1884.

In 1884, Marietta Stow, a California women’s activist and publisher of the newspaper Woman’s Herald of Industry and Social Science Cooperator, was leader of the new Equal Rights Party. Stow wished to nominate a woman for president, and Belva caught her attention when the lawyer wrote a letter to the Woman’s Herald, stating her belief that women should run for office and expressing her frustration with the Republican Party. Prominent suffragists Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton advocated support for the Republicans, in hopes that a GOP president and a Republican-majority Congress could be influenced to pass a women’s suffrage amendment. But Belva was tired of this approach. During the summer of 1884, she had attended the Republican National Convention in Chicago and appeared before their Resolutions Committee to request an equal rights plank in the party’s platform—a request that was essentially ignored. Instead of trying to ingratiate themselves with the established political parties, Belva argued, suffragists should form their own, writing in her letter that “It is quite time that we had our own party; our own platform, and our own nominees. We shall never have equal rights until we take them, nor respect until we command it.” Stow had found her nominee.

The Equal Rights Party officially nominated Belva Lockwood to the presidency at an August 1884 meeting. Belva did not know of their plans to do this but soon received a letter informing her she’d been selected as the party’s nominee, something she later said took her “utterly by surprise.” After spending a few days thinking it over, Belva wrote a letter accepting the nomination and laying out her platform, which advocated temperance, revision of divorce and inheritance laws, equal representation for women in politics and government, and the establishment of an international court of arbitration to resolve disputes between countries, among a number of other positions. Her acceptance letter was mailed to Stow and also published in newspapers across the country (Stow would later become her running mate).

Belva took campaigning seriously. Her second husband, Ezekiel, had died in 1877, and her daughter, Lura, was grown, so she put her law career on hold and traveled the country campaigning. She gave speeches in Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, Louisville, Cleveland, and a number of other cities from September to November 1884. Newspapers covered her rallies, while humor magazines like Puck and Judge poked fun at her as they did the male candidates from both major and minor parties—though in her case the ribbing focused primarily on gender. Meanwhile, men across the country, amused by the idea of a woman running for president, formed Belva Lockwood Clubs, which held faux rallies in which cross-dressing men pretended to be Lockwood and her supporters, giving fake speeches and holding satirical parades.

In addition to this pretend support, Belva also found real supporters, and come election day, she became the first woman to receive votes for president. (In 1884, three territories had fully enfranchised women, but only states could vote for president, so all the votes Belva received came from men.) In an election in which over 10 million votes were cast, Belva received several thousand votes—she claimed the number was 4711—but the official count is difficult to establish, and Belva claimed that many of her votes had been either destroyed or assigned to the majority candidates. (At the time, rather than marking one’s chosen candidate from a standard ballot, as we do today, each party printed its own ballots—clearly distinguishable by color and design—and each voter slipped the ballot of his chosen party into the ballot box, making it much easier to toss out votes for a specific candidate.) Belva petitioned Congress to look into apparent voting anomalies, but they declined.

Still, Lockwood was not discouraged, and she ran for president on the Equal Rights Party’s ticket again in 1888. That race was her final bid for an elected position, though she remained active in women’s rights and anti-war organizing in the following years. She also kept practicing as an attorney into her early 80s. Belva died at age 86 on May 19, 1917—a month after the first woman was sworn into the House of Representatives and three years before the 19th Amendment gave women across the country the right to vote.

Additional Sources:

Belva Lockwood—That Extraordinary Woman,” New York History, Vol. 39, No. 4; “Socioeconomic Incentives to Teach in New York and North Carolina: Toward a More Complex Model of Teacher Labor Markets, 1800-1850,” History of Education Quarterly, Vol. 46, No. 1.

11 Sharp Facts About Annie Oakley

Getty
Getty

You probably know that Annie Oakley was an outstanding sharpshooter who became famous while performing in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. But if your knowledge of her life is limited to Annie Get Your Gun, we’ve got you covered. In honor of her birthday, here are 11 facts about Oakley, the Little Sure Shot of the Wild West.

1. SHE MADE HER FIRST SHOT AT 8 YEARS OLD.

Born on August 13, 1860 in a rural part of western Ohio, Phoebe Ann Moses grew up poor. Her father’s death in 1866 meant that she had to contribute to help her family survive, so she trapped small animals such as quail for food. At eight years old, she made her first shot when she killed a squirrel outside her house. “It was a wonderful shot, going right through the head from side to side. My mother was so frightened when she learned that I had taken down the loaded gun and shot it that I was forbidden to touch it again for eight months,” she later said.

2. SHE USED HER SHOOTING SKILLS TO PAY OFF HER MOM’S MORTGAGE.

Despite Oakley’s top-notch shooting skills, her widowed mother struggled to make ends meet. She sent Oakley to work for another family in exchange for her daughter getting an education. As a teenager, Oakley returned home (after working as a servant for an abusive family) and continued to hunt animals. She sold the meat to an Ohio grocery store, earning enough money to pay her mom’s $200 mortgage. She later wrote: "Oh, how my heart leaped with joy as I handed the money to mother and told her that I had saved enough to pay it off!"

3. SHE BEAT HER FUTURE HUSBAND IN A SHOOTING MATCH.

At 15 years old, Oakley participated in a shooting match on Thanksgiving with Frank Butler, an Irish-American professional marksman. The match, which happened in Cincinnati, was a doozy. To Butler’s surprise, the teenage girl outshot him by one clay pigeon, and he lost the $100 bet he had placed. Rather than feel embarrassed or emasculated by his loss, Butler was impressed and interested, and the two married the following year.

4. DESPITE HER PROFESSION, SHE EMPHASIZED HER FEMININITY.


Getty Images

At the end of the 19th century, shooting was a predominantly male activity, and Oakley certainly stood out. But rather than dress or behave like a man to fit in, she emphasized her femininity. She wore her own homemade costumes on stage, behaved modestly, and engaged in "proper" female activities such as embroidery in her spare time.

5. SHE WAS ONLY FIVE FEET TALL.

In addition to Oakley’s gender, her diminutive stature made her stand out in the world of sharpshooting. In 1884, the Sioux chieftain Sitting Bull befriended Oakley when the two performers were traveling across the country. Acknowledging both her height and her shooting skill, Sitting Bull nicknamed Oakley Watanya Cicillia (English translation: Little Sure Shot). The American Indian warrior liked Oakley so much that he gave her his special moccasins to "adopt" her as his daughter.

6. SHE PERFORMED FOR KINGS AND QUEENS IN EUROPE.


Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Although the concept of the Wild West is firmly rooted in Americana, Oakley showed off her shooting skills across Europe as part of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. In 1887, she performed for Queen Victoria at the American Exposition in London, and the queen reportedly told Oakley that she was a "very clever little girl." In 1889, Oakley performed at the Paris Exposition and traveled to Italy and Spain. The press loved her, the king of Senegal wanted her to come help control the tiger population in his country, and Italy’s King Umberto I was a fan.

7. SHE OFFERED TO LEAD FEMALE SHOOTERS IN WORLD WAR I.

Wanting to use her shooting skills to serve her country, Oakley wrote a letter to President McKinley in 1898. She offered to provide 50 female sharpshooters (with their own arms and ammunition) to fight for the United States in the Spanish-American War, but she never got a response. Similarly, in 1917, she contacted the U.S. Secretary of War to offer her expertise to teach an army unit of women shooters to fight in World War I. She didn’t hear back, so she visited army camps, raised money for the Red Cross, and volunteered with military charities instead.

8. SHE SUED THE PRESS FOR PUBLICIZING HER (NONEXISTENT) DRUG ADDICTION.

In August 1903, two of William Randolph Hearst’s newspapers in Chicago reported that Oakley was a cocaine addict who was arrested for stealing a black man’s pants. Other newspapers ran the story, and Oakley—who was neither a drug addict nor a thief—was horrified. "The terrible piece … nearly killed me … The only thing that kept me alive was the desire to purge my character," she said.

The woman who had been arrested in Chicago was a burlesque performer whose stage name was Any Oakley. Most newspapers published retractions, but Hearst didn’t. He (unsuccessfully) hired a private investigator to uncover anything sordid about Oakley. Oakley sued 55 newspapers for libel, ultimately winning or settling 54 of them by 1910. Despite winning money from Hearst and other newspapers, costly legal expenses meant that she ultimately lost money to clear her name.

9. THANKS TO THOMAS EDISON, SHE BECAME A FILM ACTRESS.

In 1888, Oakley acted in Deadwood Dick, a financially unsuccessful play. At the Paris Exposition the next year, though, she met Buffalo Bill Cody’s friend Thomas Edison. In 1894, Oakley visited Edison in New Jersey and showed off her shooting skills for the inventor’s Kinetoscope. The resulting film, called The Little Sure Shot of the Wild West, featured Oakley shooting a rifle to break glass balls. Although she didn’t continue acting in film, she did act in The Western Girl, a play in which she portrayed a sharpshooter, in 1902 and 1903.

10. TWO SERIOUS ACCIDENTS HALTED HER CAREER.


Annie Oakley in 1922

Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

In 1901, Oakley was injured in a train accident while traveling between North Carolina and Virginia for a performance. Although reports differ about the severity of her injuries, we do know that she took a year off from performing after the accident. Two decades later, Oakley was injured in a car accident in Florida. Her hip and ankle were fractured, and she wore a leg brace until 1926, when she passed away from pernicious anemia in Ohio at age 66. Frank Butler, her husband of 50 years, died 18 days later.

11. HER NAME BECAME AN IDIOMATIC EXPRESSION.

You know you’ve made it when your name becomes an idiom. Because of her shooting skills, the phrase "Annie Oakley" acquired a meaning of a free ticket to an event. Performing with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, Oakley shot holes in tiny objects, making targets out of everything from playing cards to a dime to a cigar dangling out of her husband’s mouth. Because free admission tickets for theatrical shows had holes punched in them (so they wouldn’t be sold to someone else), these tickets came to be called "Annie Oakleys."

A Brief History of Canada's Iconic Hudson’s Bay Blanket

Jessica via Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Jessica via Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The Hudson’s Bay Company blanket may appear to be a fairly plain household item, but it’s perhaps the most remarkable blanket in the world. The off-white wool patterned with slender stripes of green, red, yellow, and indigo played a vital role in how modern Canada came to be—and it's still for sale today.

The Hudson’s Bay Company is now a well-known retail group that claims to be the oldest company in North America, and it includes Saks Fifth Avenue and Lord and Taylor among its department stores. But as far back as 1670, the company, then under royal charter from England, operated as a fur trading business, pioneering the exploration and settling of Canada. In many of the farther regions, the Hudson’s Bay Company was the effective government of the vast territory, and was at one point the largest landowner in the world, controlling over approximately 15 percent of North America.

And it was the striped Hudson’s Bay Company point blanket that helped pioneer the way.

According to the official company history, blankets had been taken to Hudson Bay as trade goods as far back as 1668. But it was in 1779 that the Company first commissioned the English textile mill of Thomas Empson in Oxfordshire for “30 pair[s] of 3 points to be striped with four colors (red, blue, green, yellow) according to your judgment.”

The durable and warm blanket was prized by the early fur traders, miners, and prospectors. “I have in my possession,” wrote one such explorer, “one of a pair of blankets which I purchased in your store 30 years ago this month … packed north all through the mountains and received some of the roughest usage that any fabric could possibly survive. I could not truthfully estimate how many tons of river gravel was dumped onto it and washed in our attempts to find gold.”

But more importantly, the striped blanket proved highly popular with the native inhabitants of Canada. Easier to sew than bison and seal skins, and much quicker to dry, the blankets provided superb insulation during the harsh winter months. Often the blankets were converted into winter coats, known as “capotes.” As fur trade increased, it was the striped blanket that often paved the way for the early relationships between the company adventurers and the native tribes, and it was often traded for beaver pelts.


Steelbeard1 via Wikimedia Commons // CC0 1.0

As well as the traditional stripes, the iconic blanket was also known for its “points”: A series of thin black lines located just above the lower stripes. These “points” were not, as is sometimes commonly believed, an indicator of how many pelts the blanket was worth in trade, but an easy-to-read measurement of how large the blanket was. When folded, the lines, or “points” would be displayed, easily indicating the exact size of the blanket. The term stemmed from the French empointer (to make threaded stitches on the cloth). According to the company’s specifics:

A full point measured 4 – 5.5 in.; a half point measured half that length. The standard measurements for a pair of 1 point blankets was: 2 ft. 8 in. wide by 8 ft. in length; with a weight of 3 lb. 1 oz. each. Points ranged from 1 to 6, increasing by halves depending upon the size and weight of the blanket.

As the lucrative fur trade expanded into Canada, with an increasing number of trading posts, forts, and settlements, the highly prized point blanket became a primary trading commodity. Demand was so great that production back in England was expanded to the A.W. Hainsworth Company in Yorkshire toward the end of the 18th century. Their wool was known for being well-made and had been used in everything from billiard tables to the felt on piano hammers. Still made there today, Hainsworth is so prestigious, it was worn by both Prince William and Harry at the 2011 royal wedding.

By the 19th century, the Hudson’s Bay Company had evolved into a vast mercantile retail empire, often transforming their frontier trading posts into general stores, catering to—as their official history put it—“one that shopped for pleasure and not with skins.” Today the company is one of the oldest existing in the world, and still bears the distinctive colored stripes on some versions of its logo.

Despite its iconic status, the blanket is not without controversy. Disturbing claims have accused British administrators in North America of using the Hudson’s Bay blanket to spread smallpox among the native tribes as the British Empire expanded further into Canada. General Sir Jeffrey Amherst, commander of the British forces in North America during the Seven Years War, suggested in a letter to one of his colonels that the deadly pox might be introduced to the local population, and the colonel’s reply put forward the horrific idea that it could be conveyed in blankets. But according to their official history, “Hudson’s Bay Company had nothing to do with the story of the use of smallpox as biological warfare.” Complicating matters even further, while there was an outbreak of smallpox in native communities the following spring, the disease was already present in those areas before Amherst’s letters, so it’s unknown if he actually went through with the plan or merely mentioned it.

These days, the distinctive stripes can be found on everything from iPhone cases to golf balls to beach chairs. But the blanket itself is still for sale, looking much as it did when the original orders were placed in London over 230 years ago, paving the way for the birth of modern Canada.

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