The Patent Act of 1790 allowed all people, regardless of gender, to receive patents for their inventions in the United States. It took nearly 20 years for the first woman to receive a patent: Mary Dixon Kies.
Remarkably little is known about the life of Mary Dixon Kies outside of her patent. She was born March 21, 1752 in South Killingly, Connecticut, to John Dixon, an Irish immigrant from Ulster, and Janet Kennedy, his third wife. It is thought that the Dixons were farmers. According to genealogical records, Mary Dixon was the widow of Isaac Pike, with whom she had a son of the same name, when she married John Kies. Together they had a son, Daniel.
In 1790, the Patent Act cemented the right of all citizens, regardless of gender, to patent their inventions, though this was not particularly practically useful, as women could not legally own property independent of their husbands. For twenty years after the Patent Act passed, no woman received a patent, at least not under her own name.
On May 5, 1809, Mary Dixon Kies was issued a patent for a process of weaving straw with silk. She became the first woman to be issued a US patent under her own name. The hat and bonnet production industry in New England quickly adopted this process, using it widely for over a decade. Unfortunately the patent itself was destroyed in a fire of the Patent Office in 1836, during which approximately 10,000 other patent records and numerous drawings and notebooks were lost.
Most notably, Kies was praised by First Lady Dolley Madison for the invention, which was assisting New England’s economic recovery after an embargo was placed on goods imported from Europe in an attempt to maintain wartime neutrality. During the War of 1812, the hat industry was one of the very few domestic industries in New England that not only survived, but excelled. However, that embargo lasted just fifteen months. Though Kies’s son Daniel invested in her business, free trade with Europe and rapidly changing fashions kept Kies destitute. Her husband died in 1813 and she lived with her son until her death.
Mary Dixon Kies died January 1, 1837, at age 85, penniless. She was buried in a pauper’s grave in Brooklyn, New York. Her grave was marked by a blank field stone until 1965, when a monument was erected on her grave. At the time of her death, she was one of less than two dozen women to have been issued a patent. As of 2019, nearly 22% of patents have at least one woman inventor listed. In 2006, Kies was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. Two samples of her personally-woven straw fabric can be seen at the Bugbee Memorial Library in Killingly, Connecticut. Additional samples are displayed at the Wadsworth Athenaeum in Hartford, Connecticut.
Material sourced from:
– Intellectual Property: A Reference Handbook by Aaron Schwabach