A Life Well Lived: Amelia Tyler of the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute and the United States Patent Office, 1832-1908

Today’s post is written by Dr. Greg Bradsher, Senior Archivist at the National Archives at College Park, MD.

In June 1908, the Scientific American reported on the death of Amelia Tyler. The periodical noted that she had died on May 23, at her home in Washington, D.C. and that her death “has caused widespread regret and sincere mourning among her friends and associates.” At her death she was 75 years old and the day before she had been at work at the United States Patent Office.[1] 

Ms. Tyler was born in Connecticut on October 23, 1832. Her parents were Reverend Edward Royall Tyler and Sarah Ann Boardman Tyler, Tyler’s second wife. Rev. Tyler graduated at Yale College, in 1825, pursued theological study at Andover, and for many years filled the office of Congregational pastor, first in Middletown and afterwards in Colebrook, Connecticut. For a few years he was editor of The Congregational Observer, a weekly religious journal published at Hartford, and from January, 1843, was editor and proprietor of The New Englander, which, in conjunction with other gentlemen, he established. In 1837, if not before, he became interested in the abolition of slavery and in 1837, while in Brattleboro, Vermont, he gave a lecture on Abolition at a church that led to the organizing of an anti-slavery organization in that town. Rev. Tyler died September 28, 1848, and his widow remained in New Haven, educating her children, until, having seen them all in the way of providing for themselves, she came to Brattleboro in 1867 to assist her sister-in-law, Miss Amelia S. Tyler, in the Tyler School.[2]

According to one periodical, published several months after Amelia Tyler’s death: “Brought up in an intellectual atmosphere of high ideals, the brilliancy of her mind was recognized and stimulated far beyond her generation’s notions of  ‘female education,’ and, indeed, of its ordinary collegiate standards. Her habits of wide reading and study were kept up to her latest years, as a friend testifies who found her a year or so ago taking up modern Greek ‘Just for amusement,’ after her office hours.[3] 

Amelia Tyler was for some years a teacher in the school of her relative Miss Sarah Porter, in Farmington, Connecticut. This was Miss Porter’s School, a private college preparatory school for young women. Among its students have been Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Gloria Vanderbilt, Gene Tierney, and Barbara Hutton. Becoming keenly interested in the cause of the education of the freed slaves, she gave up her position in 1870, and took up a teaching position at the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, in Virginia. The school was founded in 1868 by former Union Army brevet brigadier general Samuel Chapman Armstrong, who was interested in moral training and a practical, industrial education for southern Blacks. There Ms. Tyler taught grammar and composition. One of her students was Booker T. Washington, who began his college education at Hampton in 1872.[4]

In his autobiography, Up From Slavery, Washington wrote the following about the officers and teachers at Hampton:

“…what a rare set of human beings they were! They worked for the students night and day, in season and out of season. They seemed happy only when they were helping the students in some manner. Whenever it is written — and I/ hope it will be — the part that the Yankee teachers played in the education of the Negroes immediately after the war will make one of the most thrilling parts of the history of this country. The time is not far distant when the whole South will appreciate this service in a way that it has not yet been able to do.

The education that I received at Hampton out of the text-books was but a small part of what I learned there. One of the things that impressed itself upon me deeply, the second year, was the unselfishness of the teachers. It was hard for me to understand how any individuals could bring themselves to the point where they could be so happy in working for others. Before the end of the year, I think I began learning that those who are happiest are those who do the most for others. This lesson I have tried to carry with me ever since.”[5]

The Southern Workman noted that “for five years, until family consideration called her to other duties, Miss Tyler threw herself heart and soul into Hampton’s work. As English teacher, her originality illuminated even the intricacies of the old-fashioned, technical grammar. Outside the classroom, as well, she was the kind, inspiring friend whom many a son and daughter of Hampton remembers with constant gratitude.”[6]

Ms. Tyler continued teaching at Hampton until June 1876 and moved on to teaching at Doane College, Crete, Nebraska, a private college which had been established in 1872. But Ms. Tyler did not forget Hampton and for the rest of her life remained a loyal friend to the school. After teaching in Nebraska, on January 1, 1879, she was appointed a clerk with the Post Office Department working in the Dead Letter Office in Washington, D.C., with an annual salary of $900. There her powers as a linguist and her ability to read many foreign languages were of great value. She worked there until at least July 1, 1881.[7] 

In 1879, Ms. Tyler’s mother removed to Washington and took up her residence with her two unmarried children, Amelia and Edward Royall Tyler. Edward was born in New Haven in May, 1843, where he lived until his graduation from Yale in 1865. He soon took a position as a clerk in the Treasury Department and studied law in his free time. After some time spent in the practice of law, Edward reentered the government service as a Fourth Assistant examiner in the Patent Office. He eventually was promoted to the grade of Principal Examiner, a position held at the time of his death, March 30, 1891. Amelia’s mother died April 3, 1891. Another brother, William Clark Tyler (1838-1907), also lived in Washington, D.C. He was employed at the Treasury Department.[8]

On October 10, 1881, Ms. Tyler went to work for the United States Patent Office, being of the first three female patent examiners hired. Her annual salary as a Third Assistant Examiner was $1,400. Two years later she was just one of four female patent examiners, all of them carrying the title Third Assistant Examiner. There were no female First, Second, or Fourth Assistant Examiners. [9] Undoubtedly she found the Patent Office a busy place and not having the best of working conditions.

During 1881, the Patent Office received 24,878 applications for patents for inventions and 678 design patent applications. It issued 16,113 invention and design patents. The acting commissioner of patents reported that “in no former year have there been so many applications for patents filed or so many patents granted.” [10] Acting Commissioner V. D. Stockbridge informed Congress that the salary of the principal examiners had not been increased since 1848 and that the salaries of the First and Second Examiners were fixed in 1855 and there had not been any increases since that time. He observed:

“As a result the best men not unfrequently leave the Office for more lucrative positions, much to the detriment of the service. It is unnecessary to say that the qualities required to make a good examiner are of the very highest order, such as command the largest salaries in positions outside the Office. In view of these considerations, it is hoped that Congress will consider the expediency of increasing the salaries of the examining officers in this Bureau, with a view to greater permanence in the force and the consequent increase of its efficiency.”

He informed Congress that the request for an increase in the number of examiners was made by the Commissioner in 1879 and repeated in 1880 with the words: “The force employed…is entirely inadequate to the amount and character of work required.” Stockbridge added:

“since that time the work has increased more than fourteen per cent., and the force, which was then inadequate, has received an addition of about three per cent. At the present rate of increase in the number of applications for patents either the work must accumulate upon the examiners’ desks or the quality of the work done must be such as to bring discredit upon the thoroughness of official examinations. The annual increase alone represents a number two-thirds as great as the entire number of patents applied for in the year 1861, at which time Congress appropriated money for the support of sixteen principal examiners, each to be provided with a first and second assistant.”

He added “that the full examining corps, then, numbers ninety-eight, while in 1861 it numbered forty-eight. Now, the total number of applications for patents in 1861 was 4,643 as against 26,059 during the year just past.” [11]

Regarding the working conditions he informed Congress that there was an urgent need for room. Specifically, he reported:

“The evils of overcrowding in examiners’ rooms have been fully set forth in the reports of former Commissioners. It is manifestly impossible for the assistants properly to attend to their own work while the examiner is conducting a hearing in the same room; yet only three of the examiners have consulting-rooms apart from those occupied by their assistants. Besides, it should be noted that the custom of keeping the photo-lithographs and specifications in each room — a custom which lack of space elsewhere would have compelled if convenience had not recommended it — has necessitated the employment of shelves and drawers, which narrow very considerably the desk capacity of all the rooms. For this reason most of the rooms now in use are overcrowded to a degree, of great inconvenience. More than double the space now available for the examining force is absolutely required for the proper dispatch of business and the health of the employees.”[12]

Despite probably being overworked in a crowded working condition, Ms. Tyler apparently enjoyed work and became a specialist handling a large class of patent applications related to the general category of agriculture. She also found time to become a skilled botanist. [13]  

Although she never lived in Brattleboro, Vermont, she visited there frequently on annual leave, to visit relatives.[14] She was probably there in 1900, when Booker T. Washington, in the course of a lecture, paid tribute to her influences on his life. [15] 

Besides her mother and brother living with her until 1891, when they both passed away, Ms. Tyler had frequent contact with friends, former students, and former co-workers from her Hampton days, involvement with various charitable organizations, and contact with her brother William Clark Tyler, who worked for the Treasury Department. She also had social and professional dealings with her nephew Cornelius C. Billings. He had been born in New Haven, December 2, 1864 and was appointed an assistant examiner in the Patent Office in 1889. In 1895 he graduated from the Columbia Law School (now the George Washington University), in Washington, D. C. In May, 1898, he offered his services to the Navy Department, and was commissioned ensign and served with the fleet off Santiago, in the Spanish-American War. He was discharged in January, 1899, and received a reappointment to the Patent Office and soon after was reinstated in his former grade. In June, 1901, he was promoted to the position of law clerk in the Commissioner’s Office, serving until November, 1905, when he was appointed examiner of interferences. About a year later he was appointed by President Theodore Roosevelt examiner-in-chief in the patent office and was promoted in 1907 to the position of Assistant Commissioner of Patents. [16]

The years and decades passed by and Ms. Tyler was eventually promoted to Second Assistant Examiner, at a salary of $1,600 annually.[17]Many of her colleagues moved on to the private sector. “It is not surprising that a large percentage of those who have been appointed, and whose salary has ranged from $1,200 a year at the start to a maximum possible salary of $2,500 a year,” the Scientific American observed, “have looked upon their period of service in the Patent Office merely as a stepping stone to independent professional practice.” [18]

The year 1907 would be Ms. Tyler’s last full year working at the Patent Office. It was just as busy as when she began in 1881. During 1907, the Patent Office received 57,679 applications for invention patents and 896 applications for design patents. It issued 36,469 invention and design patents. There were just 258 Assistant Examiners examining the applications. [19]

In January 1908, the Commissioner of Patents, Edward B. Moore, reported to Congress:

“The work has been for years very much in arrears and is in the same condition at this time. This has been found to be caused, first, mainly by the insufficient force of examiners and clerks to meet the great volume of work coming in, a large increase yearly, which yearly increase is not always capable of being estimated in advance, so that the same arrearage of work has existed each year for many years. The examining corps of the Office has repeatedly worked until 5 o’clock, even when the official day closed at 4 o’clock, for many years, and they have been called upon several times to work later than this hour and have frequently forfeited a part or all of their annual leaves for the purpose of bringing up their work in order that a good showing might be made before Congress met. Their efforts under these conditions were at best spasmodic, and simply resulted in thousands of actions being made which were nothing more than frivolous. After one of these annual efforts it was necessary to do a great portion of that work all over again, and it really had the effect of throwing the business of examination of applications further back than ever. This resulted not only in vexatious delays to the inventors, but it caused hundreds of complaints to be filed, and, what was still more embarrassing and serious, a great many applications were passed to issue that were not ready for patent, with the result that the inventors and owners of meritorious inventions forfeited valuable rights by these careless, ill-considered, and hasty actions on the part of the Office. The inventors are entitled to be protected as well as the public, and they should always be helped by the Office in all legitimate ways … Complaints against the conduct of affairs in this Office have been numerous, and many have been based upon good and sufficient grounds. The affairs of the Office should be so conducted that very few, if any, just complaints could be lodged. In view, therefore, of the great amount of accumulated work and the great volume of work that is constantly coming in, increasing each year and keeping pace with the growth of the country and the activities of manufactures and commerce, I am most decidedly of the opinion that the present force cannot cope with it. I have, therefore, after a most careful investigation of the Office needs in this respect, asked for a sufficient number of examiners and clerks to bring the arrearages up to date and to dispose of the great amount of incoming work material. If the force asked for be granted and made immediately available, I believe that the accumulated work can be disposed of, and that it will be possible in the future for the average inventor’s application to be acted upon, either rejected or a patent allowed, within thirty days of its receipt. The inventors are entitled to prompt action, and they should be accorded it.” [20] 

Regarding the examiners, Moore informed Congress, that:

“…after about three years’ service in this Office and when they are fully experienced and valuable in the work thereof they are also fully equipped to go out, and do go out to accept positions that pay all the way from $2,000 a year up. The Office has become merely a post graduate school for the technical and legal education of young college men who enter the service. The General Electric Company has in its patent department twelve or more men who were formerly Examiners in this Office, and other corporations have taken hundreds from this Office, and this company also, like many others, takes men from the graduating classes of polytechnic colleges at higher salaries than are provided on entrance to this Office, so that we are now competing with outside institutions for men to do the technical work of the Office. One hundred and thirty-five examiners out of a corps of three hundred have resigned in a period of less than five years. The salaries paid Principal Examiners in the Patent Office are the same that were fixed by the act of 1848.” [21]

During the spring of 1907, Ms. Tyler visited Hampton for the Jamestown Exposition and the 39th anniversary celebrations for the school. There she met with many old friends and former co-workers. She brought with her from her own library a gift for the Huntington Library of Hampton Institute. It was a collection of illustrations in four large folios of “The History of the Art of Writing,” by Henry Smith Williams, M. D. published by Merrill and Baker in London and New York. The Southern Workman observed that summer, she was “one of the school’s early teachers and most loyal friends.” [22] After this trip to Hampton, Ms. Tyler sent to the Hampton Institute’s Museum a valuable book on Indian art and languages.[23]

In early November 1907, she returned to the school for a visit. While there she ran into one of her former pupils, Warren Logan, then treasurer of Tuskegee Institute, who was also visiting. [24]

Regarding her last two visits to Hampton, The Southern Workman observed that “Her spirited interest in the Exposition and in every improvement at the school, and her keen pleasure in the renewal of old friendships will remain a cherished memory with her Hampton friends.” [25]

Amelia Tyler, seated. George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress). LC-B2- 177-13 [P&P]. (from https://www.loc.gov/item/2014681008/)

On Friday morning, May 22, 1908, Ms. Tyler went to her post in the Patent Office as usual. Between 10am and 11am she went to her nephew’s office to tell him that she had been seized with severe pain in the chest. Cornelius took her to her home. The physician pronounced the trouble pneumonia. Her physical strength, which had been failing for more than a year, proved insufficient to cope with the disease and shortly before 8am the following evening she passed quietly away.[26] A colleague at the Patent Office said she “remained an efficient and faithful assistant until the day previous to her death.” [27]

On May 25, funeral services were held at the home in Washington of her widowed sister-in-law. The services were conducted by Rev Dr. Woodrow, pastor of the First Congregational Church of Washington, of which Ms. Tyler was a member. The Mission Bulletin of Washington, said: “Miss Tyler’s death was a great shock to her many friends, who came in large numbers to show their regard. As the case of Dorcas of old, those who had been blessed by her ministries pressed forward to tell what she had done. She was a friend and helper of the poor and sick, an earnest and efficient friend of the Central Union Mission to which her brother William had been devoted, and also we may add, of the work of the Salvation Army, of which she was long an auxiliary member.” On the morning of May 26, in the Prospect Hill Cemetery, at Brattleboro, the burial took place. The only relatives present were her nephew Mr. Billings and her niece Ms. Faith Tyler.[28]

Four months after her death, The Southern Workman observed:

“A valued teacher at Hampton Institute from 1871 to 1876, and a loyal member of its Armstrong League, Miss Amelia Tyler died, on May 23, at her home in Washington, D.C., after a sudden and brief illness. To many of Hampton’s workers, graduates, and friends, especially to the narrowing circle of those who were associated with Miss Tyler in the earlier years of the school’s work, the death of this friend brings a sense of personal bereavement. Miss Tyler was a woman of rare ability and originality. She was one of the women of New England’s best birth and brain, whose co-operation General Armstrong drew to his new plan for the education of the freedmen. Miss Tyler early took up the work of teaching in Miss Porter’s famous school in Farmington, Connecticut. It was a position of honor and usefulness, remuneration and promotion. Giving it up to help break the paths in the new mission field of Hampton was one of those fine sacrifices which General Armstrong’s ‘Memoranda’ calls ‘the best, happiest use of one’s self and one’s resources—the best investment of time, strength, and means.’”[29]

Indeed, Amelia Tyler’s life was one that was well-lived.


Footnotes:

[1] “Death of Miss Tyler,” Scientific American, Vol. 98, No. 24 (June 13, 1908), p. 423.

[2] Mary R. Cabot, comp. and ed., Annals of Brattleboro, 1681-1895, Vol. I (Brattleboro, Vermont: Press of E. L. Hildreth & Co., 1921), pp. 275-276.

[3] “Deaths,” The Southern Workman, Vol. XXXVII, No. 9 (September 1908), p. 508..

[4] “Death of Miss Tyler,” Scientific American, Vol. 98, No. 24 (June 13, 1908), p. 423; The Brattleboro Reformer, May 29, 1908, p. 3; Louis R. Harland, ed., Booker T. Washington Papers, Vol. 2 186-1889 (Urbana, Chicago, London: University of Illinois Press, 1971), pp. 29, 44, n. 29; Catalogue of the Hampton Normal & Agricultural Institute, Hampton, Va. For the Academic Year 1870-71 (Boston: Press of T. R. Marvin & Son, 1871), n.p.; 1876 Catalogue of the Hampton Normal & Agricultural Institute, Hampton, Virginia (Hampton, Virginia: Normal School Steam Press, 1876), p. 7; Cabot, comp. and ed., Annals of Brattleboro, 1681-1895, Vol. I, p. 276

[5] Booker T. Washington, Up From Slavery: An Autobiography (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1925), pp. 62, 66.

[6] “Deaths,” The Southern Workman, Vol. XXXVII, No. 9 (September 1908), p. 509.

[7] “Death of Miss Tyler,” Scientific American, Vol. 98, No. 24 (June 13, 1908), p. 423; Louis R. Harland, ed., Booker T. Washington Papers, Vol. 2 186-1889 (Urbana, Chicago, London: University of Illinois Press, 1971), p. 44, n. 29; The Brattleboro Reformer, May 29, 1908, p. 3; Official Register of the United States Containing a List of Officers and Employees in the Civil, Military and Naval Service Thirtieth of June, 1879, Vol. II (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1879), p. 8; Official Register of the United States, Containing a List of Officers and Employees, Civil, Military, and Naval Service, First of July 1881, Vol. I (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1881), p. 8; Cabot, comp. and ed., Annals of Brattleboro, 1681-1895, Vol. I, pp. 276-277; “Deaths,” The Southern Workman, Vol. XXXVII, No. 9 (September 1908), pp. 508, 509.

[8] Cabot, comp. and ed., Annals of Brattleboro, 1681-1895, Vol. I, pp. 276, 278.

[9]  Letter from the Secretary of the Interior, Transmitting in compliance with Senate resolution of May 19, 1881, a list showing the names of all officers, clerks, and other employees borne upon the rolls of the department, December 8, 1881, United States Senate, 47th Congress, 1st Session, executive Document No. 5, p. 17; “Death of Miss Tyler,” Scientific American, Vol. 98, No. 24 (June 13, 1908), p. 423 Official Register of the United States, Containing a List of Officers and Employees in the Civil, Military, and Naval Service on the First of July, 1890, Together with a List of Ships and Vessels Belonging to the United States, Vol. I (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1883), p. 525.

[10] Annual Report of the Commissioner of Patents to Congress for the Year Ending December 31, 1881 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1882), p. iv.

[11] Annual Report of the Commissioner of Patents to Congress for the Year Ending December 31, 1881 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1882), p. v.

[12] Annual Report of the Commissioner of Patents to Congress for the Year Ending December 31, 1881 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1882), p. vi.

[13]  Mrs. John A. Logan, The part taken by women in American history (Wilmington, Delaware: The Perry-Nalle Publishing Co., 1912), p. 891; “Death of Miss Tyler,” Scientific American, Vol. 98, No. 24 (June 13, 1908), p. 423.

[14]  The Brattleboro Reformer, May 29, 1908, p. 3.

[15] Cabot, comp. and ed., Annals of Brattleboro, 1681-1895, Vol. I, p. 276.

[16] Cabot, comp. and ed., Annals of Brattleboro, 1681-1895, Vol. I, pp. 277- 278; “Deaths,” The Southern Workman, Vol. XXXVII, No. 9 (September 1908), pp. 508-509.

[17]  . Official Register of the United States Containing a List of the Officers and Employees Civil, Military and Naval Service, Together with a List of Vessels Belonging to the United States July 1, 1905, Vol. I (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1905), p. 989.

[18] “Congress Increases Patent Office Salaries,” Scientific American, Vol. 98, No. 25 (June 20, 1908), p. 438..

[19] Annual Report of the Commissioner of Patents to Congress for the Year Ended December 31, 1907 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1908), pp. iii, xii.

[20] Annual Report of the Commissioner of Patents to Congress for the Year Ended December 31, 1907 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1908), p. x.

[21] Annual Report of the Commissioner of Patents to Congress for the Year Ended December 31, 1907 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1908), p. xii.

[22] “Hampton Incidents,” The Southern Workman, Vol. XXXVI, No. 6 (June 1907), p. 363; “Hampton Incidents,” The Southern Workman, Vol. XXXVI, No. 7 (July 1907), p. 411; “Deaths,” The Southern Workman, Vol. XXXVII, No. 9 (September 1908), p. 509.

[23] “Deaths,” The Southern Workman, Vol. XXXVII, No. 9 (September 1908), p. 509..

[24] “Hampton Incidents,” The Southern Workman, Vol. XXXVII, No. 1 (January 1908), pp. 56-57.

[25] “Deaths,” The Southern Workman, Vol. XXXVII, No. 9 (September 1908), p. 509..

[26] “Death of Miss Tyler,” Scientific American, Vol. 98, No. 24 (June 13, 1908), p. 423.

[27] “Deaths,” The Southern Workman, Vol. XXXVII, No. 9 (September 1908), p. 507; “Death of Miss Tyler,” Scientific American, Vol. 98, No. 24 (June 13, 1908), p. 423.

[28] “Deaths,” The Southern Workman, Vol. XXXVII, No. 9 (September 1908), p. 508.

[29] “Amelia Tyler” The Southern Workman, Vol. XXXVII, No. 9 (September 1908), p. 470.

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