Historians of the Civil War era wouldn’t have been surprised if they had discovered that Michigan’s 19th century inventor, Clarissa Britain, was a spy for either the North or the South, given her ability to safely navigate around battlefields.
A native of New York, Britain lived in at least seven states during her lifetime. In 1841, she settled in St. Joseph, along the coast of lower Lake Michigan. She later moved to Beaufort, S.C., and was living there in 1860 — in the axis of the confederacy — when the state became the first to secede from the Union.
The following year, the U.S. Navy bombarded Port Royal, a mere six miles from her Beaufort home. She left soon after and journeyed 900 miles by herself, through states where the fighting raged, to return to Michigan. It was an almost unheard-of feat for a single woman in her 40s.
While a cloak-and-dagger scenario certainly would have made for a more glamorous tale, Britain’s peripatetic journeys are explained by her deep devotion and attachment to her siblings.
During a 17-month period while living in St. Joseph in the 1860s, Britain submitted seven patent applications to the U.S. Patent Office for inventions ranging from a floor warmer to a portable ambulance built on a horse wagon, to better protect and care for wounded soldiers coming off the battlefield.
Britain’s story began in Brownville, N.Y., in 1816, where she was one of four children born into what was described as a politically prominent middle-class family. Her father, Maj. Gen. Calvin Britain, served in the War of 1812. Because of his position, Clarissa was afforded a quality education and earned a teaching certificate.
Early on, she demonstrated a keen aptitude for learning. She was described as a student who “excelled in mathematics” at the Rev. James Boyd School in Watertown, N.Y. She moved on to the Troy Female Seminary, founded and operated by Emma Willard, a notable women’s rights activist of the time. Britain developed as a “pupil of distinction” in a school noted as being a learning center for gifted young women who wouldn’t otherwise have been exposed to the difficult courses offered to men of the time.
After graduation, Britain taught school in Batavia, N.Y., and Washington, Pa., before moving to Michigan to live with her brother, Calvin, in St. Joseph. Her sibling was an early settler in the area and a founder of St. Joseph.
He was also a prominent businessman and a member of the Democrat Party who served in the Michigan House of Representatives and Senate before becoming the state’s eighth lieutenant governor under Gov. Robert McCelland.
With her extensive education, it was only natural that Britain would establish a school of her own, the Niles Female Seminary. Her female students were encouraged to take classes in rhetoric, logic, astronomy, chemistry, geometry, algebra, botany, and French — subjects usually reserved for boys.
Students also were taught “The Elements of Moral Science,” a study of “human duty.”
Writing in Michigan History Magazine, Denise E. Pilato, a professor of science in technology at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti who researches and writes about American female inventors, believes Britain might have been influenced by the class, as her later inventions promoted efficiency, economy, and the utility of products at affordable prices.
Despite the school’s acclaim in its seven-year run, in 1848 Britain sold the facility, moved back to New York, and took a teaching position at her old finishing school, Emma Willard’s Troy Seminary.
Three years later, Britain was once more on the move, this time to Beaufort, S.C., to be closer to her sister, Martha Johnston, and her family. She continued teaching, but there’s no record of which of several schools for girls in Beaufort may have employed her.
She next decamped for West Virginia, where she was hired as vice principal of a school in Wheeling. After a short stint there, she moved back to Beaufort just in time to witness history firsthand as South Carolina became the first state to secede from the Union, touching off the Civil War.
In 1862, she learned Calvin had died in St. Joseph at age 62. As executor of his estate, Britain returned to Michigan, traveling 900 miles north through states in which battles were being fought. That experience helped inspire some of the seven inventions she produced between March 10, 1863, when her first patent was recorded, to the last one on Sept. 27, 1864.
Britain was 47 years old when she developed a floor-warming stove, a forerunner of floor heaters popular in new and remodeled homes.
“The object of this invention is to use the heat produced at the bottom of the stove for the purpose of heating the floor around or on the sides and in front of the stove, thereby warming the feet of the persons in the room,” she said in the description of her invention.
Britain’s most ambitious invention, likely the result of personal contact with the war, was explained in her patent application filing as an “improved ambulance” to be used “for the removal of the wounded from the battle to safe quarters, where they may receive immediate surgical aid.”
The unit was designed to be inexpensive, and easily disassembled and erected near battlefields. As an added benefit, wounded soldiers could be cared for while being transported to a hospital.
Her other inventions were more domestic in nature and intended to lighten workers’ chores, including a pot for boiling potatoes and other vegetables, then drying them without taking them out of the pot; a drainer for drying dishes without using a dish cloth; and a safety improvement for oil-burning lamps. Another of her creations was an improved pot for boiling potatoes and vegetables, in which they could be dried or mashed and kept warm on a stove without burning them.
In keeping with her theme of easing the labors of others, Britain invented a lantern dinner pail that she said could help miners. Her dinner pail, she wrote, provided the “means for warming articles of food, and also, where light is necessary, as in mines, to afford means for giving light at the same time the articles are warming.”
There is no record showing she made any money from her inventions.
In 1866, she once again left Michigan, moving to Kenosha, Wis., where she was appointed the principal of Kemper Hall, a notable Episcopalian girl’s boarding school that operated until 1975. The Gothic Revival campus is on the National Registry of Historic Places.
The following year she was back in Beaufort, taking care of her seven nieces after her sister died. In 1870, she moved to Chicago with the children and her brother-in-law, part of a wave of people trading rural farms for urban centers. Ten years later she moved back to St. Joseph to live with another sister, Isabella.
Her last move is an unexplained one, to Baton Rouge, La., where she died in 1895 at age 80.
While the name Clarissa Britain is long forgotten, Calvin Township in Cass County is named after her brother — and, by extension, the entire family.