The Life of Emma Allison

The 1876 Centennial Exhibition Women's Pavilion Steam Engineer

Emma Allison 1846-1914

This blog tracks the search for Emma Allison, steam engineer of the Women’s Pavilion  at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. I will post information I accumulate on her life and hope others can contribute when they have some facts to share.

Here is some information about Emma:

Emma Allison was probably born Julia Emaline Allison in Grimsby, Ontario, Canada either in 1845 or 1846.

Her father was Richard Allison, born in St. David’s, Ontario, in 1813. He died in Grimsby in 1877.

Her mother was born Elizabeth Nixon in 1809 and died in California in 1887.

Emma’s siblings were Mary Ann, Louisa, David, Oscar, John, and Lohmer.

Emma is listed in the 1851 Canadian census as Julia E. born in 1845 and in the 1861 census as Emaline born in 1846.

The 1871 census lists Emma as 24 years old and living with her parents.

Posted here are the accounts of Emma Allison in newspapers and books from 1876 and afterwards that report her activities in the 1876 Women’s Building at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. Click on the articles to view them or click on the links to view the article in its larger context.


•”What One Woman Is Doing,” The New Century for Woman, June 3, 1876, p. 26

This article marks the first mention of Emma Allison in The New Century for Woman newspaper which was printed in the Women’s Pavilion. It appears to be a reprint from the Philadelphia Press and references an earlier article from the Philadelphia Press (or sometimes it is named the Philadelphia Times; that may be the article below). The first two pages of the June 3, 1876 issue are attached here.

•”A Woman in an Engineer’s Role,” The Philadelphia Times, June 2, 1876

The information about Emma Allison that is most often quoted or reprinted is from this article in the morning edition of The Times (Philadelphia). The text is the same as that in the reprint below except for the title. Attached here is the entire page from the newspaper.

•”A Woman Machinist,” The Englishwoman’s Review of Social and Industrial Questions,  November, 1876. pp. 525-526.

The article from the Philadelphia Times was reprinted in a British feminist newspaper in November of 1876. A PDF of the pages is attached here.  The full year’s issue can be downloaded at Internet Archive.

A Woman Machinist

The Philadelphia Times says: The women of the United States resolved to display at the Exhibition a complete representation of their industries, art, and skill. They have accomplished their purpose, and, in so doing, were careful to exclude as far as possible everything emanating from the hand or brain of the opposite sex. Though they did not actually build the Women’s Pavilion, they paid for its erection, and their exhibits in that structure, with the exception of the machinery, are the work of their own hands. The same is to be said of their guests and co- exhibitors, the women of England, Canada, and other countries. The rule has been carried even to the engine-house, where the Baxter portable engine of six-horse power is run by a woman engineer. This engine is the motor of all the spinning frames, looms, and other machinery in practical operation within the pavilion, and its fair mistress is Miss Emma Allison, of Grimsby, Ontario. She is by no means a soot-begrimed and oil-covered Amazon, but on the contrary, of neat and cleanly appearance and a highly educated and refined young lady. Of the brunette type, medium height, well-formed, strong and active, possessing a gentle disposition and much vivacity and good sense in conversation, she affords no little attraction to visitors as she dexterously manages her iron pet and tells them all about it. Her dress is neat, and of grayish linen, prettily braided in black. She makes it a point to keep both engine and room in the perfection of tidiness, and while she would grace a parlour in a manner equal to that of any lady, no lady in ballroom attire could grace that engine room better than she. Her choice of this employment comes, she says, from three sources, namely: Her delight in the study of natural philosophy gave her a fondness for machinery which was developed into its comprehension through the assistance of her brother, a member of the Engineer Corps of the United States navy; her means being limited, she must follow some remunerative occupation, and she accepted her present position as the one of her choice, although hitherto she had nothing but theoretical knowledge of steam engineering, and she believed it the duty of some one of her sex to enter a “new departure” which is among those opening out to women employment far more paying and healthful, requiring as much knowledge and skill for its accomplishment, and carrying with it as great honour as teaching school, keeping books, or operating sewing machines, copying, etc. She believes that if so many male engineers did not find such apparent delight in plastering themselves all over with soot and making their engine rooms perfect specimens of disorder and filth women would long ago have looked with favour upon the occupation. She does not, however, intend continuing in the work after the Exhibition, purposing then to start a literary magazine in San Francisco.

•”A Lady Engineer,” The New-York Evangelist, June 22, 1876, p. 7

This coverage of Emma Allison may be a reprint from another newspaper but it gives the most complete account of her background. See the full page here.

•”Two Remarkable Women,” Iowa State Reporter, Waterloo, Iowa, June 21, 1876, p. 7.

This is a reprint of an article first printed in the The New Century for WomanA PDF version of the Iowa newspaper page is attached here.  A similar story was reprinted in a Hillsborough, Ohio newspaper.

•”The Great Exhibition: What Women Have Done for It,” New York Times, June 4, 1876, p. 1

The New York Times wrote an unfavorable view of the Women’s Pavilion and mentioned the woman engineer. The page can be viewed in this PDF.

•”The Centennial Exposition: The Woman’s Pavilion,” Scientific American, June 24, 1876, p. 401

The Scientific American covered the Centennial extensively and was very interested in the inventions and new technologies shown there. But this review is not kind to the “Woman’s Pavilion” and its contents, except for Emma Allison. The full page is available here.

•”The Centennial Exhibition: The Woman’s Pavilion,” Manufacturer and Builder, July 1876, p. 148

This monthly magazine describes all the exhibits in detail but only gives this brief description of the Women’s Pavilion. The entire page can be seen here.

Next in importance to this edifice [the United States Government Building] is the Woman’s Pavilion, a modest structure, extending over nearly an acre of ground, and devoted to the display of nearly every kind of women’s handiwork. The Queen of England sends a napkin woven by herself, and the Princesses some beautiful silk embroideries, also the result of their own labor. Even the engine which drives the looms is managed by a lady—she is a regularly educated engineer, and seemingly is perfectly familiar with machinery. Many an engineer of the opposite sex might learn a profitable lesson both from the perfect neatness of the mechanism and its fair attendant. The fact proves, if nothing else, that prevalence of grease and dirt, such as one commonly finds in most engine-rooms,is not at all necessary to the successful management of machinery.

•”At the Centennial Exhibition: Baxter Engine,” Saturday Evening Post, July 8, 1876, p.4

This is a general review of the Centennial Exhibition with mention of the Women’s Pavilion’s engineer. A PDF of the full page is here.

The Illustrated History of the Centennial Exhibition, etc., James McCabe, 1876, p. 591.

This extensively illustrated record of the Centennial Exhibition and the city of Philadelphia. It mentions Emma Allison  and her work in the Women’s Pavilion. It mistakenly says she is from Iowa (all other accounts say she is from Ontario, which is in Canada). The beginning of Chapter XVIII, which describes the Women’s Building, called here “The Woman’s Building,” is available as a PDF here.  A full copy of the McCabe book is available at Internet Archive.

Eastward Ho! Or, Leaves from the Diary of a Centennial Pilgrim, David Bailey, 1877, p. 80.

An account of the author’s visit to the Centennial. Published after the exhibitions closed, the author draws on newspaper accounts as well as personal experience. It is not known if he actually saw Emma Allison. The title pages and the chapter this mention appears in are in this PDF.

Daughters of America OR Woman of the Century, Phoebe Hanaford, 1883, p. 626

This is a survey of women’s lives and occupations in the 19th century. Chapter XX looks at women inventors and mentions Emma Allison.  The chapter is available as a PDF here.

•A Book of Remembrance (1901) by Elizabeth Duane Gillespie, p 319-320

Gillespie was the head of the Women’s Committee at the Centennial Exhibition. Emma Allison is described (but not named) on pages 319-320 of her book. Gillespie is quoting from newspapers accounts from 1876 and not necessarily recounting her own memories. Her description of the engineer as gaining her skills in a factory is not consistent with other reports. The book is available free online at Internet Archive.

In October our building was begun. Although there was no corner-stone laid our Committees met on the spot to see the first spadeful of earth taken out. We gave thanks that we were granted this privilege, hopeful that through our work other women would be benefited. Having space enough, we decided to have looms in one corner for ribbons and silks, and women weavers in charge of them. This required the addition of a steam-engine, and we built a little house for it outside, and engaged a woman engineer. The fertile brain of a woman writer, Mrs. S. C. F. Hallowell, suggested the propriety of having a newspaper edited and printed within our walls. This plan was adopted, and most successful it proved. It was published weekly; its name was The New Century for Women [sic: Woman]. It was from beginning to end a sheet that could be read by any young person without detriment. It is true it contained no account of a prize-fight, no ghastly tale of the turning on of gas for the destruction of any mortal life or lives, and no impossible picture of the “last Paris hint” in the shape of a tall hat with taller feathers, or worse still, with bunches of flowers supported by wires, only too evident to the beholder, and consequently not ornamental. There were then in our daily press no pictures of ” costumes de promenade” as there are now, when the sight of the contracted waist makes one’s breath come thick and short, and we are lost in wonder as to the sensations of the wearer whose picture in the public press looks like a note of interrogation. Our paper, written, edited, and printed by women, contained only what was calculated to instruct and amuse the reader. Mrs. S. C. F. Hallowell and her able assistant, Miss Stockton, carried this branch of the work to a successful issue and to the delight and satisfaction of all interested. The same engine which moved the machinery for the looms moved also the printing-press for The New Century. A newspaper commenting during the Exhibition upon this “new industry for women” said, “You should have seen the engineer sitting in the little engine-room answering the questions of the bystanders. She said her labor was not as exhausting as taking care of an ordinary cook-stove, that it required about one hour’s actual work per day. She had just picked up the necessary knowledge with regard to the construction of her charge while working in a factory. ‘But do you do all the work?’ asked a visitor. ‘Everything, from lighting the fire in the morning to blowing off steam at night,’ was the quick reply, and she was then receiving a larger salary than a teacher in one of our country schools.”

•”Toward a New Century: Women and the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition, 1876″ by Mary Frances Cordato.

In The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 107, No. 1 (Jan., 1983), pp. 113-135. Published by The Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

This is an excellent overview of the Women’s Pavilion at the Centennial. Cordato explains the importance of Emma Allison on pages 123-124. Link to JSTOR (requires access or subscription).

Promoters of the Woman’s Building expressed a special interest in placing women into the mainstream of nineteenth-century American progress. They were aware that the modern economic system had created new, highly paid positions which both sexes could perform with equal success. To illustrate this point, organizers employed a lady engineer, Emma Allison of Grimsly, Ontario, whose small six horse power engine generated enough energy to run a printing press, spinning frames, and power looms. Allison, who managed her engine entirely herself “from starting the fire in the morning, to blowing off steam at night,” found her work enjoyable, relaxing, and profitable. When asked whether females could run such machines on a regular basis, Allison “expressed her confidence” in their ability, stating “that there were thousands of small engines in various parts of the country, and no reason existed why women should not be employed to manage them.” Tending an engine required “far less attention” and was less fatiguing than minding a small child or taking charge of an ordinary stove.

Female organizers never intended to desex women. Instead, they hoped to mix feminine virtue with professional achievement. Allison was most admired for the domestic attributes she brought to the otherwise male trade of engineering. “She is no low, vulgar woman,” wrote one spectator, “but an educated and accomplished lady.” She does her work “in such a neat, womanly way,” insisted another admirer, “as to make one recall with disgust many other engine-rooms, where the inevitable masculine heat, dust, and smoke are increased a thousand-fold by disorder.” Allison symbolized, for promoters of the Woman’s Building, the promise of significant change. She represented an acceptance of the American woman into a growing economic system, while she remained faithful to the female attributes of respectability, cleanliness, and order. Allison demonstrated that women were fully capable of taking command of the nation’s industrial activity and progress, without sacrificing woman’s virtue.

1 reply

  1. Greetings from Toronto;

    I thought I would leave a comment in the case you have not come across this reference from the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, Thursday 18 Aug 1898 regarding the estate of Oscar W. Allison.

    “The People of the State of New York, by the grace of God free and independent, To Emma Marchand, Zalmer R. Allison, heirs at law and next of kin of Oscar W. Allison, deceased, send greeting:…..”

    It goes on, and there are other articles later that say the sisters contested the will, and then a judge ruled in favour of the widow.

    I have a little info on Emma’s siblings (trying to get more):
    Mary Ann Allison married Albert Edgar Sears in 1857 and had at least five children
    Louisa Catharine married John Thomas (1881 Census of Canada, Ontario, Grimsby shows Louisa, widow, son Victor, and her mother Elizabeth Allison, age 71, widow, so perhaps all three went to live in California after that)
    David Henry Allison, married potentially Amanda Orillia Benedict, but lacking more info
    Oscar William Allison , Civil War guy, stayed on afterwards, marine engineer, invented paper bag machine, then cigarette making machine (Allison-Kimball device), along with brother John Allison, formed Allison Bros. Co., Rochester, NY. married Caroline, died 1898.
    John A. Allison, worked with brother Oscar.
    Zalmer Allison, I can not find any reference


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