May 5: Mary Kies Becomes First Woman to Receive a U.S. Patent

 

On this day in 1809, Mary Kies of Killingly, Connecticut became the first woman in American history to obtain a patent for “a new and useful improvement in weaving straw with silk or thread.”

Little is known about Kies or the specifics of her patent, which was destroyed in 1836 along with thousands of other records in a fire at the U.S. Patent Office.  Born in South Killingly in 1752, she was one of many women who participated in the “cottage industry” of manufacturing women’s hats at home in order to supplement her family’s income in the early 19th century.  Her patented process of weaving straw together with silk made the manufacturing process more efficient and cost-effective.

First Lady and fashionable headwear enthusiast Dolley Madison, circa 1817.

While Kies wasn’t the first American woman to apply a new, time-saving innovation to her line of work, she was the first to patent an invention under her own name.   Even though the U.S. Patent Act of 1790 allowed American citizens to apply for patents regardless of gender, women were discouraging from doing so due to local coverture laws that made it difficult, if not impossible, for married women to own property and titles independently of her husbands.

Kies was poised to be the perfect role model for Republican womanhood — an industrious woman whose innovation encouraged thrift and domestic manufacturing amid an era of contentious tariffs, embargoes, and trade disputes during President James Madison’s tenure.  First Lady Dolley Madison, famous for her hospitality and keen fashion sense, sent Kies a personal letter congratulating and thanking her for her contribution to women’s fashion and national industry.   However, Kies was never able to profit from her invention, owing to a sudden and dramatic change in ladies fashion that veered away from the material she had just patented.  Despite her pioneering role as one of America’s first female inventors, she died in 1837 in relative poverty.

Further Reading

Mary (Dixon) Kies: America’s First Female Patent Holder,” Killingly Historical and Genealogical Society

Mary Kies,” Lemelson-MIT Program Database