In the history of inventions and inventing, there is always a first: first car ever made, first radio ever built, first rocket into space. So when we came upon a story about the first American women to get a patent, we just had to find out more. As it turns out, the 204th anniversary of this seminal event will be on May 15, when in 1809, Mary Dixon Kies was granted the first U.S. patent ever issued to a woman. And, as it turned out, it wasn’t for some trivial thing, but a new method of weaving straw with silk or thread to make hats. In the early 1800’s this was a big deal; so much so that First Lady Dolley Madison praised her for boosting the nation’s hat industry. So let’s meet this invention pioneer and find out a little more about her.
Though little is known of the details of her life, we do know that Mary Dixon Kies was born in 1752 in Killingly, Connecticut to John and Janet Dixon, Irish immigrant farmers. She grew up and married without much fanfare but after her first husband died, she got remarried to a man named John Kies. We also know that, at that time, straw hats were important to women and field workers who wore them for protection from a brutal sun, and most of these hats were imported from Europe. Around the early 1800’s, Napoleon was coming into power in France and was starting wars with his neighbors. Since the U.S. didn’t want to be drawn into these conflicts, the U.S. government started to halt importation of European goods (including hats) in an attempt to maintain neutrality. So to fill the void of European goods, the U.S. government encouraged more robust domestic manufacturing and by the time President James Madison came into office, he was looking for American industries to replace the lost European goods. As it turned out, the timing was perfect for Mary Kies’s new invention, and she became an excellent role model for the new push for American home-grown industry. In 1790, Congress passed the Patent Act, allowing anyone, male or female to patent an invention or process. But though another woman named Betsy Metcalf had earlier invented a method of braiding straw into hats, she didn’t bother to patent her process. This opened the door for another new braiding method to obtain a patent, and on May 15, 1809, Mary Kies and her innovation stepped right through.Mary’s product was unique because she used silk thread instead of another piece of straw to hold the cross hatching together. Her method made very study hats, made it possible to make the hats faster, was cost effective, and was adopted by the New England hat-making industry. Kies’s process made it possible to mass produced hats—by 1810 in Massachusetts alone, about $500,000 worth of hats were manufactured. In fact, there was so much money, that New England’s hat industry was one of the few which continued to prosper during the war of 1812.
As for Mary Kies, after her husband John Kies died in 1813, she went on to live many more years with her son, Daniel, in Brooklyn. So next time you see a straw hat, think of Mary Kies, the first American women to receive a patent.