Poet, inventor, and businesswoman Amanda Theodosia Jones learned firsthand why 19th century America was a tough time and place to be a female entrepreneur, especially one with romantic and spiritual sensibilities. In her long and storied career, Jones made remarkable advances in food safety and other fields, collecting a dozen patents along the way. She relied on not just her ingenuity and diligence, but some influential and very unlikely friends.
Amanda Theodosia Jones was born in 1835 in Bloomfield, New York, one of 13 children. Due to tuberculosis and general poor health, she was forced to spend much of her time indoors. While cooped up she developed an active imagination, as well as a love of poetry. Jones started teaching school at the age of 15, but gave up teaching after a few years when she began to earn a living publishing her poetry.
Jones was a romantic soul, with a strong faith as well as a strong sense of calling. Thus, in 1869, when she felt a strong urge to move to Chicago, she heeded the impulse. She worked as an editor there, while continuing to write. She befriended Jonathan Andrews, a physician with a reassuring appearance who Jones would later describe in her autobiography as solidly built, white-haired, and middle-aged. He advocated unorthodox healing methods and was convinced that love transcended death. Jones adopted her new friend’s ideologies with enthusiasm. For five years, Andrews treated her using the “compressed air-cure” or “air baths,” which involved spending two hours in a well-lit tank full of compressed air. Jones reported that the treatment gave her a great deal of energy.
Over time, however, Dr. Andrews grew even more unconventional. He eventually bade adieu to Jones by telling her that he wanted to devote himself to thoughts of colonizing Mars.
The ever-curious Jones also took up a new interest: inventing. Her most notable invention came about after a friend complained about the drudgery of preserving food. Jones’ brother and another friend, a judge named J. R. Evelyn, suggested to her that existing methods of food preservation could be improved.
Food canning has been practiced in various forms since the early 19th century. Canned food in tin cans was particularly important for European military forces on the move, even though initially, soldiers were forced to use rocks or bayonets to open the cans, since can openers weren’t invented until several decades later.
Canned food is taken for granted now, but back then, the science behind food preservation was unclear, leading to dangerously unreliable results. A critical advance came with Louis Pasteur’s work to develop the germ theory of disease, and his invention of pasteurization in 1864. Understanding the connection between bacteria and spoilage allowed for technological refinements to food preservation processes. This was an industry ripe for disruption, as contemporary tech innovators would say. One key problem was that early techniques involved cooking food inside the can, sometimes for as long as six hours. This was particularly tough on delicate fruits, harming their taste and texture.
Jones had never canned even a single piece of fruit, but she was prone to sudden inspiration. One of these brain waves led her to invent a special technique for food canning, which didn’t require food to be packed already cooked. Convinced that oxygen would spoil fruit, she realized, as she wrote in her autobiography:
“The air must be exhausted from the cells and fluid made to take its place. The fluid must be airless also—a light syrup of sugar and water—that, or the juice of fruit.”
Aided by a relative, college professor Leroy C. Cooley, Jones used trial and error to find ways to seal jars by eliminating the air within them. Jones spent years perfecting this vacuum technique; corn and oysters proved especially tricky. It wasn’t until one day in 1872, after a long slog of testing different methods, that intuition inspired Jones to wait four minutes during the vacuum process. The food expanded, the temperature within the jar reached 120°F, and the jar effectively sealed. Essentially, the difference between the pressure outside the jar and inside it created a vacuum seal with the lid. The discovery revolutionized food canning. The Jones Process, as it came to be known, produced tastier food that lasted longer and was still safe to eat. Vacuum sealing continues to be a popular method for preserving food today, with some refinements to the Jones Process.
The invention was one thing, but ensuring her legal ownership over the process was another. She had little formal knowledge of law. Judge Evelyn helped her draft sophisticated legal documents throughout the contractual arrangements for the Jones Process. Jones would go on to hold five patents, three jointly, for the vacuum canning of different types of foods.
After her success with vacuum canning, Jones obtained several patents related to oil burners, for improved methods for burning fuel. She acquired 12 patents in total, an unusual feat for the time; by 1850, when Jones was 15, only 35 women had ever obtained patents in the United States. In fact, the acquisition of patents by women remains unusual; as of 2010, women held fewer than 20 percent of patents.
Like Jones herself, Judge Evelyn was both idealistic and practical. In addition to assisting Jones with legal matters, he dictated to her many pages’ worth of Crusade Documents, setting out a vision for a utopian colony in a great deal of administrative detail. These made Amanda Jones perhaps the second most famous Jones to set forth on a last crusade—until an acquaintance named William Livingston Browne made off with her transcription of The American Crusade, printed it, and registered it at the Library of Congress with his own name listed as the author.
Throughout her life, Jones enjoyed eclectic hobbies and clearly had a penchant for eccentric friends and acquaintances. But the extent of her eccentricities didn’t become clear until the publication of her book A Psychic Autobiography in 1910, just four years before her death from influenza. The autobiography revealed that two of Jones’ primary advisors—Judge Evelyn and Dr. Andrews—had been quite dead at the time they had allegedly advised her. Fifty-year-old Andrews, for instance, had been working as a doctor 80 years prior. When Browne claimed authorship of The American Crusade, Jones was bitter not just because her name was left off, but also because the document failed to credit the ghostly source.
Jones claimed that this inspiration had largely been received at séances, which she enthusiastically attended. Her interest in communicating with the dead was initially related to her deceased brother. Years earlier, he had died suddenly at school, forcing the teenage Jones to deal with all of the funerary arrangements. The tragedy would have been traumatic for anyone, but was especially so for the sensitive and physically fragile Jones.
In the second half of the 19th century, the Ouija Board was patented, and spiritualism was not only acceptable, but fashionable. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was one notable believer. Jones credited her spirit friends with laying the foundations for her success, writing, “Spirits may clear away the mists before us;—it is our eyes that see!” Jones claimed that her move to Chicago had been instigated by spirits. The intuition that had guided Jones’ development of the vacuum canning process had been a matter of “psychic sense.” Even the decision to collaborate with Professor Cooley (who was not dead—at least, not yet) had come after catching a flying message. She wrote that “spirits had elected him.”
She recounted that Judge Evelyn had provided some early inspiration during a séance:
“Friends, do you know there is a way of canning fruit without cooking it?”
“Tell us!” said Mr. Browne, with eagerness.
He answered in a voice of great severity: “When the right time comes, that shall be shown.”
A tremor caught me: “Maybe I shall know.”
Jones reported in her autobiography that her spiritualist friends had also received business advice from ghosts. One instructed her friend Mrs. Collins not to sell land inherited from her husband—and this land ended up being rich in mineral water.
Author Joscelyn Godwin speculated, based on Jones’ descriptions of Judge Evelyn writing through her and pursuing his own ends through her, that Jones may have had dissociative identity disorder (more commonly known as multiple personality disorder). However, Jones wasn’t the only 19th-century female inventor to credit paranormal influences rather than her own ingenuity. At the time, it was easier for some to believe that useful inventions were generated by ghosts rather than by women. For instance, one Elizabeth Hawks received a “vision” of a heating stove attachment that could be used for baking. She patented the invention in 1867, but only after she appealed to the patent examiners (all male) by describing the invention’s divine origins and including a testimonial from her husband. And during the California gold rush, one Elizabeth Burns created a new chemical process for gold mining. Like Jones, Burns said that the revelation came from her dead brother. Historian Anne L. Macdonald wrote:
“One wonders whether the “revelation” was her way of explaining to the world an invention that she knew would otherwise be denounced as the product of a mere woman’s brain or whether it was how she explained to herself one of those mysterious flashes of insight that come to inventors.”
The fact that the invention game was stacked against women was further illustrated by the story of Margaret Knight. Knight invented the paper bag machine in 1868, but her designs were appropriated by a man who argued that a woman couldn’t possibly have created them. It took three years for Knight to win her legal case.
It’s possible that literary inspiration felt like spiritualism to Amanda Theodosia Jones, in fact one could argue that books are one of the only ways that the dead can truly speak to the living. Or it’s possible that her technical inspirations had felt akin to religious revelation; the language with which she described her creative sparks resembles the language some use when referring to the divine.
Jones, with her interesting mix of practicality and superstition, certainly made her mark in this world, at least. One of her legacies was as a pioneering feminist entrepreneur. Jones set up the Women’s Canning and Preserving Company, a nearly all-female canning business, in 1890. The price of this company’s shares was deliberately set low, to be more accessible to female shareholders. Against Jones’ wishes, the Board of Directors sold half of the company to a group of male investors, who exaggerated the company’s profitability to sell large quantities of stock. Suspicious, Jones approached the U.S. attorney general. When the investors got wind of this, they forced Jones out of the company and continued to make inflated claims about the stocks’ value. Three years later, the company fell apart and its much-ballyhooed profits went missing.
Although the Women’s Canning and Preserving Company, like Jones’ plans for a women’s home, didn’t have much of a shelf life, her most famous invention certainly did. Even today, supermarket shoppers and doomsday preppers alike will be familiar with vacuum sealed foods, preserved perfectly thanks to Amanda Jones and her imaginary friends.