Imagine you are a teenager and unexpectedly come into a small fortune. What would you do with the money? One House Page took an unconventional path with his inheritance in 1923, using the funds to patent his peculiar invention.
On Wednesday, February 28, 1923, Gilbert Gates was notified that he had inherited $10,000. (The bequest would be worth around $139,000 today.) Only 17 years old, Gates had served as a House Page for four years. He still lived with his parents on Monroe Street, in the Brookland neighborhood of Washington, D.C. His legacy came from his grandfather, J.F. Gates, who died in 1917. The elder Gates left his heirs a small parcel of land in Kansas, thought to be worth a few hundred dollars. Then, in 1923, a company leasing the land struck oil, instantly multiplying its value.
After learning of his inheritance, Gates was photographed standing on the marble steps of the rostrum in the House Chamber with Philip Pitt Campbell, the Speaker pro tempore. Gates stood up straight, arms clasped behind his back. His freckled face froze in an unsmiling expression mature for its years. “What can a young man do with so much money?” the Washington Post wondered. “That’s an easy question for Gilbert. He hopes to add a few more ciphers to the figure by perfecting and marketing his invention—a wall paper peeler.”
A wallpaper remover might seem like an odd invention. However, the decorative wall covering was a hygienic concern of the day. Wallpaper had once been an expensive luxury for the rich, but by the late 19th century, industrial production made it a working-class commodity. Tenement dwellers papered their walls, which grew dirty from smoke and soot in the air. Rather than remove old layers, owners typically just papered them over to save time and money. But the paper and paste contained cellulose, a kind of sugar. “Given proper levels of humidity, stagnant air, and dim light, the decomposing old papers and organic adhesives can be transformed into multilayered sandwiches of nutrients for noxious fauna,” including mold, bacteria, and cockroaches, explained decorative arts scholars Lena Lenček and Gideon Bosker. Scraping away old layers could prevent a toxic “hidden ecology of wallpapers” from flourishing in homes.
Gates’s wallpaper-scraping invention was patented in 1924. “Be it known that I, Gilbert J. Gates, a citizen of the United States, residing at Washington, in the District of Columbia, have invented certain new and useful Improvements in Scraping Implements,” the patent begins with a flourish. His device sponged water onto wallpaper, blasted it with an electric heating element, and scraped off the hot, soggy paper with a blade. The inventor claimed that it worked like a charm: “The other day I succeeded in cleaning a wall 16 feet long and 6 feet wide of paper in one minute.” He planned to invest his estate in producing the scrapers and selling them for a hefty profit, envisioning that they would “be a boon to housewives,” and undoubtedly sell like hotcakes.
Although the scraper did not appear to be as successful as Gates expected, his innovations still earned him praise around the House. Called “a mechanical genius,” he fabricated radio sets out of scrap metal with his fellow Pages. Members of Congress dubbed him “the smartest boy in the House.” The New York Times reported that Majority Leader Frank Mondell of Wyoming even helped the Page obtain his patent.
With all the focus on his inheritance and invention, Gilbert Gates may have forgotten the other reason February 28, 1923, was a special day. That day, he also swapped out his youthful knickerbockers—the short pants worn by boys—for men’s long pants, complete with a sharp crease down the front. As the photo caption joked, his inheritance might be speedily spent on scrapers, but “the pants are permanent.”
Sources: Patent US 1518320; Lena Lenček and Gideon Bosker, Off the Wall: Wonderful Wall Coverings of the Twentieth Century (Chronicle Books, 2004); “A Short History of Wallpaper,” Victoria and Albert Museum; Washington Post, March 1, 1923; Rockford Republic, March 1, 1923; and New York Times, March 1, 1923.Follow @USHouseHistory