Mary Dixon Kies
Prior to the passing of the Patent Act of 1790, only men could file a patent to protect their inventions in the United States. With the passage of this law these protections were opened up to any inventor without regard to their gender or marital status. Unfortunately there were many state laws still in place that forbid wives from owning property independent of their husbands and many women didn’t bother to patent their inventions.
That is until May 5, 1809 when Mary Dixon Kies was granted the first American patent given to a woman. While not the first to create hats woven from straw, she was the first to weave straw with silk creating a new hat-making method that benefited from the political climate at the time. Europe was embroiled in the Napoleonic Wars at this time and in an effort to remain out of the conflict, the US embargoed all trade with France and Great Britain. Without these imports the hat industry was taking a huge hit.
In 1798 another woman, Betsy Metcalf, created a way of braiding straw that allowed her to make hats that quickly took off in popularity but she decided not to patent her invention as she didn’t want her name sent to congress. It was her design that Kies improved upon and patented, and which the First Lady, Dolly Madison, was so pleased with she sent a personal letter applauding her work. Her method was a very cost effective way for creating these new hats and was for a while a great bolster to the economy of the area.
Kies’ original patent was destroyed in a fire in the United States Patent Office in 1836 and due to the changing fashions of the day she was unable to profit from her invention and died penniless in 1837. Examples of her woven hats can be found in many museum collections in the New England area of the United States.
Written by Angela Goad