Photo by Rose Heichelbech ( credited-to-men)

Women and Adversity:
Ada Harris
Inventor of the Hair

 At least 30 women were deprived of glory when men either stole their ideas or were given credit for what women discovered. Since this is Black History Month, I’m featuring Ada Harris, who invented the hair straightener.

On her patent application in November 1893, she wrote that her invention straightened hair and would be of help to “colored people.” A picture of the two-part instrument looks like one side is a large cooking fork and the other part is a curling iron. Harris writes that the fork element  will separate and comb the hair while the other portion will press the hair. She recommends the instrument be oiled before use. She writes, “Be it known, that I, ADA HARRIS, of Indianapolis, County of Marion, and State of Indiana, have invented a certain new and useful Hair-Straightener.” The patent was approved in 1895, but no investors came forward.

In 1909 Isaac K. Shero, altered Harris’ version by dropping the fork element that separates and combs the hair and replaced it with another iron. He has since received credit he doesn’t deserve.
Few facts are known about Harris, and several dates conflict. She is not in Wikipedia or the Encyclopedia Britannica. She has a listing in the Encyclopedia of Indianapolis, and Kelsey McKinney wrote an article about her in 2017 that appeared in Racked magazine.


  • Born in Campbell, Kentucky. One report is August 15, 1866, another, 1870
  • As a child, moved to Indianapolis, Indiana with her mother, Anna Tolliver
  • 1888 – graduated from high school and became a teacher
  • 1890 – reported to be one of the few women in Indianapolis to ride a bicycle
  • 1894 – displayed her product at the California Midwinter International Exposition
  • 1903 – became principal of Harriet Beecher Stowe School in Indianapolis
  • 1925 or 1926 – Graduated from Butler University, located in the Irvington neighborhood,with a degree in education


  • In 1894 Harris became an activist because she wanted African Americans to succeed. She told the Indianapolis Star in 1909, “My greatest ambition is for my race,” she said. “I want to see my people succeed. I want to see them have equal chance…I shall have spent my life for my race.”
  • She, along with two other women, founded the Idle Hands Needle Club. This group provided fuel in winter and food and clothes for the poor.
  • 1905 – Founded a boys’ club that raised enough money to buy property where they built a gym, reading room and bathrooms
  • Raised money to buy and run a community grocery store.
  • Officer in the Corinthian Baptist church’s club
  • Reporter and typesetter for two Black newspapers, the Indianapolis World and Indianapolis Freeman
  • 1894 – Established Corinthian Baptist Church’s Women’s Club
  • 1914 – The club became the Women’s Civic Club, had more than 300 members. It later merged with the Indianapolis branch of the NAACP.
  • 1917 – Held a voting registration party to register Black women

 Harris died on September 15, 1927, probably from a stroke. No information is available about a husband or children.

 More information

 My ebooks available at and
Honoring 23 Black Women, Recognizing 23 Notable Mothers, Saluting 23 Faithful Suffragists  



Article By: Jo Ann Mathews

I published three ebooks in 2020: Women and Adversity, Honoring 23 Black Women; Women and Adversity, Recognizing 23 Notable Mothers; and Women and Adversity, Saluting 23 Faithful Suffragists to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote. These books are meant to be study guides for all students from grade school through college to help in choosing topics for assignments and to learn more about these noteworthy women. Go to, and to learn more.

    Write a Reply or Comment About This Article

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

    Time limit exceeded. Please complete the captcha once again.


    Subscribe to Blog via Email

    Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

    Join 219 other subscribers

    Discover more from Jo Ann Mathews

    Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

    Continue reading