Past Times

Legislative wife was also an inventor

Clarice Wicker’s patent drawings for the Automotive Vehicle Safety Barrier shows how the device would fit between the front and back seats.
Clarice Wicker’s patent drawings for the Automotive Vehicle Safety Barrier shows how the device would fit between the front and back seats.

Moms are nothing if not problem solvers. In 1961, Clarice B. Wicker, wife of a state legislator and mother of a future lieutenant governor, took matters into her own hands to solve a problem of highway safety before seat belts became standard equipment on American cars. N&O writer Joan Brock Years interviewed the full-time mother and part-time inventor.

An inventor out of “fear and necessity,” Mrs. Shelton Wicker of Sanford is living proof of the originality and ingenuity that’s hidden beneath the neatly coiffured tresses and blossom-sprayed noggins of State Legislative wives.

The brunette wife of the fifth-term House Representative from Lee County and mother of six is the creator of a car fence – known as an “Auto Safety Barrier” – which will appear on the market this fall. The fence fits on top of the front seat and is designed to keep little ones in back of the car.

Clarice Wicker recalls with horror a day three years ago when she had a “mighty close call.”

“I was heading out of town with the children,” she explains. “The boys jumped on me to blow the horn and almost caused me to hit another car. It frightened me so that I turned around, went back home, tore up a baby crib and tied it to the front seat to keep them in the back of the car.”

Then Mrs. Wicker discovered she could drive with freedom and concentrate on what she was doing. “I could reach through the railing to wipe their noses, hand them ale, or pop them if they needed it,” she says. “And I found I could at last get my groceries home without the bread being spilled out of the package, the bananas squashed and the cookies crushed.…”

When sympathizing mothers began to copy her contraption, she decided to apply for a patent. William Barron, professor in the School of Design at State College, perfected her idea and the patent came through in March.

It takes three minutes to install the safety fence, and it’s equally “at home” in foreign sports cars and four-door station wagons or family vehicles. The fence is also adjustable. It can be raised and snapped to the top of the car or it can folded down as a table for the children to play or eat on.

While she hasn’t decided on the material for her product, Clarice Wicker has selected a North Carolina manufacturer. Right now she’s debating between hard wood and aluminum for the finished product. Some out-of-state companies vied for the business, but the Tar Heel decided to “keep it in the state.”

The fence will sell for approximately $9.95. “We plan to make it in several colors,” she says. “And we may add accessories – like beads – later.” The shrewd mother reasons, “more and more women don’t have maid service and have to carry the children along. Now they can go in safety. And for those who haul dogs, the fence will take the place of two men.”

Sixteen-year-old Bobby Wicker … will scarcely be affected by the fence. And Sharon and Mike are old enough to ride in the front seat. But third grader Dennis, who’s “a real menace,” and the four-year-old twins, James and John, will probably be back seat riders for a few more years.…

Though she has her hands full at home, the Representative’s wife commutes back and forth to the capital city for special occasions.…

With eight hungry mouths to feed, much of her time is spent in the kitchen. “I cook a dozen eggs each morning, a pound of sausage a day and five pounds of potatoes a meal,” she exclaims. And the little Wickers consume about a gallon and a half of milk a day. …

Though she has a full-time maid, Clarice Wicker has her own formula for tackling the trials of motherhood and politics. “I used to sit down and cry a lot until I found out that did no good,” she confesses. “Now I’ve learned to take things day by day and do the important things first. And I now know that tomorrow will come – even if I don’t finish.” The N&O Apr. 9, 1961

Read more stories from local and state history and send us your own stories on the blog Past Times, newsobserver.com/past-times.

Teresa Leonard: 919-829-4866, @lizardlodge

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