(WHTM) — We know very little about Mary Dixon Kies. She was born March 21, 1752, in South Killingly, Connecticut, married twice, had two sons, died January 1, 1837, in Brooklyn, New York, and became the first woman to receive a U.S. Patent.
Women, of course, have been inventing things for millennia but had little incentive to seek patents. Under the law in many states at the time, women could not own property except through their male relatives, and could not enter into contracts. But the 1790 Patent Act allowed “any person or persons” to apply for a patent.
Kies’ invention came along at the right time. In 1807, reacting to interference with American trade by both England and France, Congress passed the Embargo Act, prohibiting American ships from trading in foreign ports. While the purpose was to punish Britain and France, it did far more damage to American commerce. On the other hand, it did increase demand for locally produced goods such as straw hats. Straw hat-making boomed in New England. It was quite literally a cottage industry-women wove straw and constructed hats in their homes.
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Mary Kies’ patent was for a method of weaving straw with silk or thread. The end result was cost-effective, looked nice, and actually became a fashion trend. So what exactly did she patent? Unfortunately, we don’t really know. In 1836 a disastrous fire in the Patent Office destroyed almost every document and model-hundreds of volumes of original drawings, notebooks, and about 10,000 patent records, including all the documentation for Mary Kies’ invention.
A year later, Mary Kies died at the age of 85. Over the years hat fashions had changed, and her patented process, whatever it was, couldn’t adapt to the new trends. She died penniless.
But Mary Kies had started something. By 1840, approximately 20 U.S. patents had been issued to women. The numbers have grown and grown. Hundred of thousands of women apply for patents every year, and now over 12 percent of patent applications include a woman’s name on them.