Every Easter, people all over the world unknowingly pay homage to the first woman to obtain a U.S. patent, Mary Dixon Kies.
Before the passage of the Married Women’s Property Acts, American women did not have the legal right to own and profit from their inventions. Despite these sexist realities, in 1809, Ms. Kies became the first American woman to obtain a patent in her name.
Her patent represents about .5% of the 203 total patents issued that year. This percentage is sadly reflective of the overall percentage of patents received by women throughout the 1800s. Of the 681,000 U.S. patents granted from 1800 – 1899, women were named on approximately 4,000, or .587%. To put Ms. Kies’ accomplishment in its proper context, by 1840, only 20 U.S. patents had been issued to women. Most 19th century female inventors patented their technologies after the Civil War ended in 1865.
The First U.S. Patent Issued To A Women
Unfortunately, the exact nature of Ms. Kies patent is unknown because her filing was destroyed in the Patent Office fire of 1836. Professor Autumn Stanley believes it was a machine patent which automated the manual techniques of weaving straw with silk that previously enabled women to make hats in their homes. Other historians believe it may have been an improvement on existing manual techniques.
Whatever the specifics, no doubt exists as to the patent’s significance, as evidence by a letter of accommodation from Dolly Madison, wife of President James Madison. Ms. Madison’s letter applauded Ms. Kies for the impact she had on New England’s struggling economy.
Ms. Kies’ timing was fortuitous, as the Napoleonic wars, which spawned the Embargo Act of 1807, effectively eliminated imports from Europe. This void for stylish hats was filled by the commercialization of Ms. Kies’ technology, which was adopted throughout New England. It is estimated that by 1810, the Massachusetts straw bonnet industry was worth about $500,000 ($10.7 million in 2021). If this figure is extrapolated throughout the U.S., it’s reasonable to assume that her patent resulted in millions of dollars of incremental commerce.
On The Shoulders Of A Fellow Female Inventor
In 1789, about 20 years before Ms. Kies obtained her patent, twelve-year-old Betsey Metcalf eyed a fancy straw hat in a store window in her hometown of Providence, Rhode Island. Unable to afford the hat, young Betsey began experimenting with the straw that was readily available in her rural community.
Through trial and error, she eventually mastered a technique to cure the straw such that it could be braided without breaking. She then devised a unique method for efficiently handweaving straw bonnets, interlaced with ribbons, that effectively competed with hats imported from Europe.
A Cottage Industry Is Born
In addition to being an entrepreneur and innovator, Ms. Metcalf was also philanthropic. Rather than patent her idea and monopolize her proprietary techniques, she taught classes to young women, empowering them to work from home and generate cash from locally available materials. At one point, Ms. Metcalf noted in her diary, “For two or three years, we had a very profitable business. I could frequently make a dollar a day.”
Though this may seem like a paltry sum in today’s world (it equates to about $100 per week in 2021), it was in fact a significant amount of money to young women who otherwise were unable to monetize their labor. As Ms. Metcalf’s technique spread, a cottage industry was born.
Ironically, even though her innovation was an early source of income for many American women, she held conventional views of a woman’s role in 18th century society. Making hats in the home became so popular that she confessed in her diary her concern that some women were devoting too much time to the endeavor, noting, “… the consequences (of my braiding technique) I fear have been more of an injury than otherwise to the New England states, for girls forsook… the care of a family by which means they have neglected a necessary part of a female’s employment.”
Fortunately, many 19th century female entrepreneurs, such as Ms. Kies, had the progressive foresight to protect and commercialize their inventions, for the betterment of all of society, despite their second-class citizen status.