Even though the U.S. Patent Act of 1790 allowed American citizens to apply for patents regardless of gender, women were discouraged from doing so due to local coverture laws that made it difficult, if not impossible, for a married woman to own property and titles independently of her husband. But today in 1809, nearly 19 years after America’s first patent was issued to a man, Mary Kies of Killingly became the first woman in American history to receive a patent. Kies’ invention was described as “a new and useful improvement in weaving straw with silk or thread.”
Little is known about Kies or the specifics of her patent, as her files were destroyed in 1836 in a records fire at the U.S. Patent Office. Born in South Killingly in 1752, Kies was one of many women who participated in the “cottage industry” of manufacturing women’s hats at home to supplement her family’s income. Her patented process of weaving straw together with silk made the manufacturing process more efficient and cost effective.
Kies was a perfect role model of early 19th-century American culture’s ideal vision of women’s role in society — that of Republican womanhood. She fit the prescription of an industrious woman whose innovation encouraged thrift and domestic manufacturing, at a time – during James Madison’s presidency – of contentious tariffs, embargoes, and trade disputes. 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.
Unfortunately, despite the work and expense incurred in acquiring her patent, Kies was never able to profit from her invention, A sudden and dramatic change in ladies fashion shifted women’s preferences away from the material Kies had just patented. Despite her pioneering role as one of America’s first officially recognized female inventors, Mary Kies died in 1837 in relative poverty.
“Mary (Dixon) Kies: America’s First Female Patent Holder,” Killingly Historical and Genealogical Society
“Mary Kies,” Lemelson-MIT Program Database