Inventor Highlight: Mary Dixon Kies

Friday, May 22nd, 2015

Mary Dixon Kies- U.S. Patent # Unknown (lost in U.S. Patent Office fire of 1836)

For the first 144 years of its existence, women were not treated as equal citizens of the United States of America. In fact, they weren’t even allowed to vote until the women’s suffrage movement, led by Susan B. Anthony, Alice Paul and many others achieved the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1920.

During that same period, women weren’t allowed to own property, earn money for any service or product they produced and many other affronts to their dignity. The United States passed its first patent law in 1790, but few women applied to patent their inventions, because of the limitations placed on their earning potential by the imbalance in the existing laws. Which makes it all the more impressive that in 1809 an inventor named Mary Dixon Kies became the first woman to have a United States patent granted to her. Recognizing the need for hats to be both durable and stylish, she created a unique method of weaving straw with silk or thread. This gave a boost to the young nation’s hat industry at a time when its economy was still struggling to establish itself.

Straw weaving was an economically vital industry in America during the 1800s. Many women worked long hours in the fields so they needed inexpensive hats to protect themselves from both the sun and inclement weather. But they preferred not to have to sacrifice style in order to gain functionality. Ms. Kies’ patent described the invention as “a new and useful improvement in weaving straw with silk or thread.” It allowed for a combination of durability and aesthetically pleasing design.

Furthermore, women who had the financial means to wear the latest styles from Paris or London’s millinery shops also needed a new source for hats. During the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815), the United States tried to avoid getting in the middle of two powerful European countries’ conflict by stopping all trade with both France and Britain. International politics presented a fantastic opportunity for the young country’s industry to grow and become self-sufficient. Ms. Kies’ invention helped it dramatically.

In fact, 1810 was a very successful year for the New England hat industry, with $500,000 ($9 million in today’s money) earned for straw and silk bonnets made in Massachusetts alone. This happened, in no small part, due to Ms. Kies’ patented process. The contribution of this new way to create beautiful, yet durable, hats made First Lady Dolley Madison, who was considered quite a fashionista in her day, sit up and take notice. She went so far as to praise Ms. Kies for her contribution to industry and foreign policy with formal written recognition.

So it is with true pride that the Innovation Alliance salutes Mary Dixon Kies for her forethought and belief that there is always a better way to do something. Because of this early example of persistence and unwillingness to accept the status quo, she paved the way for all future women inventors to come.