Tuesday, March 4, 2014

In celebration of Women's History Month: Gertrude Muller

by Nancy McCammon-Hansen

As a mother, the idea of a single woman coming up with the idea for the modern “potty chair” …and not until the 1920s…is pretty interesting. It’s also a slice of Fort Wayne history that makes our city unique and a wonderful post for Women’s History Month.

Gertrude Muller was aunt to Helen Stange nee Cox. Helen’s parents were victims of a societal faux pas when they carried her clumsy potty chair into the lobby of a fancy hotel, the Indian blanket covering it slipping off and revealing what was underneath. Aunt Gertrude saw an opportunity.

From stories written about her life, Gertrude Muller was a unique individual. She dressed up as Uncle Sam to sell war bonds. She attended the International Business College after graduating from the Fort Wayne Community Schools. She worked at Fort Wayne Electric Works and moved on to Van Arnam Manufacturing Company, which made toilet equipment. She eventually became assistant manager. For a woman born in 1887, this was not the norm of most women of that time.

Van Arnam declined to manufacture Muller’s folding toilet seat, which featured an adjustable footrest and was built to fit either a regular adult toilet or sit on its own base. So she organized her own firm—Juvenile Wood Products Inc., which was located for many years on Taylor Street. JWP would be renamed “The Toidey Company, Inc.”.

Muller was a powerhouse and enjoyed business and the travel that it afforded her. She wrote the copy for the booklet “Training the Baby”, which accompanied every “Little Toidey” that was sold. She even employed words of wisdom from Dr. Spock in her writing.

Her company went on to design and manufacture the “Comfy Safe Auto Seat”, which many of us Boomers will remember hooked over the front seat, allowing us to sit between mom and dad and see out the windshield.  There was also the “Little Two-Step”, a step stool for children to reach the sink for hand washing and the “Table-Hi Seat”, which was used when a child had outgrown a high chair but was still too small to sit in a regular dining room chair.

Muller’s work was recognized by the National Veterans of Safety, of which she was only one of three female members at that time, and the American Medical Association. She appeared around the country in programs on child health.

About 1940, she moved her offices to the Fruehauf Building on East Pontiac Street and in 1944 to South Fairfield, converting a former riding academy to an office building and factory. In 1952, she worked with engineers from Cornell University on a study to determine what happens to a child’s body in the event of a car crash. President Eisenhower invited her to the White House in 1954 to attend the White House Conference on Highway Safety.

Muller is described in the book “Hidden Heroines” which was written for Fort Wayne’s Bicentennial Commission by the Women’s Heritage Committee of the Fort Wayne Women’s Bureau as "not a surrogate mother, whose life was other peoples’ babies. She was a sophisticated, multi-faceted, courageous woman, a civic-minded citizen, a poised and delighted traveler, an accomplished pianist, and a competent equestrian—she was a charter member of the Fort Wayne Saddle & Bridle Club. The home she built for herself and her eighty-two-year old mother at 1126 West Rudisill, Fort Wayne, contained many valuable and rare imports and antiques.

“Her philosophy of life, as revealed to Vivian Crates Logan in an interview which appeared in the News Sentinel on May 3, 1940, titled ‘Women at Work,’ was practical and stern, full of respect for the American ethic of hard work. And, yet, there was a mysticism about her. She told Lotys Benning Stewart in an interview for a series on outstanding women, which was printed in the Indianapolis Star on May 4, 1947, ‘There seems to be a strong wind blowing me all the time, pushing me into the things I do.’ And her niece recalls she wrote poetry, which we regard (perhaps mistakenly) as the classic activity of the mystic.”

Gertrude Muller was born in Leo on June 9, 1887, the third child of Victor and Catherine (Baker) Muller, who were Allen County pioneer residents. Her father, who was a son of one of Leo’s founders, died when Muller and her brother and sisters were children and the family moved to Fort Wayne. Her mother’s parents were Henry J. and Mary Baker. Baker was superintendent of the Old Canal and Baker Street is named in his honor. He was one of the founders of St. Joseph Hospital and the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. Muller’s brother, Harry, later became a judge. Gertrude Muller died on October 31, 1954 and was buried from Plymouth Congregational Church, where she had been a member since 1911.

The photos in this blog post are courtesy of the News Sentinel and in the History Center's archives.

No comments:

Post a Comment