During Women’s History Month, we have the opportunity to reflect on the achievements of women. The archives of their achievements are gifts of valuable inspiration.
Having one’s creativity nurtured and encouraged by adults is a key factor in determining whether it becomes part of one’s lifestyle. Anna Keichline, my great aunt, always had the support of her parents and siblings who encouraged what was a unique path for women of her time. I’m fortunate to have inherited all of Keichline’s archives from my relatives who knew how profoundly she influenced me in the pursuit of my own career in industrial design.
In the early 1900s, it was unheard of for a woman to earn an architecture degree and actually practice the profession, to patent inventions, publish technical articles, become a Military Intelligence Agent, to own, drive and repair an automobile, to have an exceptional personal income and own a business. Yet Keichline accomplished it all, unfettered by social norms.
Her unique life path started early when she received accolades at age 14 for furniture she built in her own workshop. Her “Card Table Made of Oak” won first prize recognition at the 1903 Centre County Fair. This caught the attention of a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter who featured her in an article titled “May Devote Life to Industrial Art.” Her family did not discourage that interest because after graduating from Bellefonte High School in 1906, she attended Penn State College (now University) to study mechanical engineering.
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In 1907, she transferred to Cornell University to study architecture. In 1911, she became the fifth woman to receive an architecture degree from Cornell, and one of the very first women to practice the profession in this country. Immediately after graduating, Keichline received commissions for large architectural projects and was granted her first patent for a space-saving sink in 1912. Even today, it is unusual for a recent grad to be granted a patent. She went on to invent solutions for kitchen components, play environments for children, a folding bed for apartments and a brick with features to control room temperature.
In 1913, Keichline led a march for women’s suffrage in Bellefonte to join the nationwide effort to call attention to the issue, yet it took seven more years for women to secure the right to vote. After Pennsylvania initiated a test for registration of architects, Keichline passed that test, becoming the first woman registered as an architect in the state. During World War I, she volunteered for service and was assigned as a special agent in the Army’s Military Intelligence Division.
Keichline’s legacy can be seen in the commercial buildings and homes she designed in Bellefonte, Mill Hall, Mt. Union, Centre Hall, Huntingdon and Washington, D.C. In 2002, a Pennsylvania State Historical Marker to honor her was placed in front of Bellefonte’s Plaza Theater Building, a project she designed in 1925.
OLLI at Penn State — open to adults who love to learn — is offering more than 100 courses this spring semester. Nancy Perkins recently led a course on the Life and Career of Keichline. To receive a free spring semester catalog, call OLLI at Penn State at 867-4278 or visit olli.psu.edu.
Nancy Perkins, FIDSA, is an industrial design consultant and principal of Perkins Design Ltd.