Woman Inventor: First to be Granted a U.S. Patent
Mary Kies was an early 19th-century American who received the first patent granted to a woman by the United States Patent and Trademark Office, on May 5, 1809. Kies had invented a new technique for weaving straw with silk or thread, and First Lady Dolley Madison praised her for boosting the nation’s hat industry. Unfortunately, the patent file was destroyed in the great Patent Office fire in 1836.
She was born Mary Dixon in Killingly, Connecticut on March 21, 1752, the daughter of John and Janet Kennedy Dixon. Mary married Isaac Pike I, and had a son Isaac Pike II. After his death she married John Kies.
Prior to 1790, only men could author a patent. The Patent Act of 1790 opened the door for any male or female to protect his or her invention with a patent. However, because in many states women could not legally own property independent of their husbands, many women inventors did not bother to patent their new inventions.
For example, there is much speculation that the authorship of the cotton gin patent of 1794 by Eli Whitney should have included Catherine Littlefield Greene on the patent, as well as that of the African American slaves who were not allowed to author a patent.
Mary Kies was not the first American woman to improve hat making. In 1798, New Englander Betsy Metcalf invented a method of braiding straw which became very popular. Metcalf employed many women to make her hats, but she did not patent her process. When asked why, Metcalf said she did not want her name being sent to Congress.
During this time, the U.S. government had stopped importing European goods. Napolean was at war with many nations of Europe at the time, and he tried to win the war by blocking trade and hurting his enemies economically. The United States did not want to be drawn into this conflict.
The U.S. government had just begun to encourage domestic manufacturing, and President James Madison was looking to American industries to replace the lost European goods. Hat making was a vital industry in America during this time period because women wore straw hats to work in the field.
On May 5, 1809, Mary Kies received the first U.S. patent issued to a woman inventor for a new technique for weaving straw with silk and thread. In so doing, she bolstered New England’s hat-making economy, which had been faltering due to the European embargo. Kies’ straw weaving technique proved valuable in making cost-effective work bonnets.
First Lady Dolley Madison praised Mary Kies for boosting the nation’s hat industry. Straw bonnets manufactured in Massachusetts alone in 1810 had an estimated value of more than $500,000 or over $4.7 million in today’s money. New England’s hat industry was one of the few industries that continued to prosper during the War of 1812.
Kies was unsuccessful in her attempts to profit from her invention, however. After her husband’s death in 1813, Mary Kies went to live with her son, Daniel Kies, in Brooklyn, New York, where she died penniless at age 85 in 1837.
Mary Kies’ original patent file was destroyed in a tragic fire at the Patent Office in 1836, in which approximately 10,000 patent records were lost, as well as hundreds of volumes of original drawings and notebooks. Samples of the straw fabric covered by her patent and woven by Mary Kies are on display at the Wadsworth Athenaeum in Hartford, Connecticut.
By 1840, approximately 20 U.S. patents had been issued to women, mostly for inventions related to cooking, tools and clothing. Today hundreds of thousands of women apply for and receive U.S. patents every year, with more than 12 percent of all patent applications come from women inventors.