The First Woman In History To Receive a United States Patent
For Her Technique of Weaving Straw with Silk or Thread
It was the 5th of May in 1809, during the War of 1812, as the United States was in the clutches of an economic grip due to an embargo on goods being imported from Europe that a historic event occurred.
For the first time in history a U.S. Patent was issued to a woman!
Mary Dixon Kies (March 21, 1752 – 1837) was an early 19th-century American Inventor who was the first recipient of a patent granted to a woman by the United States Patent and Trademark Office, on May 5, 1809, for a technique of weaving straw with silk and thread. (wikipedia.org)
At that time in history, it was Napoleon's strategy to cripple the European countries he was at war with by stopping trade, thereby hurting his enemies economically. The United States and President James Madison did not want to be drawn into this conflict and were looking to American industries to replace the lost European goods.
First Lady Dolly Madison is reported to have said "hats off" to Mrs. Mary Dixon Kies for providing just that opportunity.
Mary Dixon Kies had perfected an easy technique of weaving straw with silk or thread which exponentially helped the hat industry - both the straw hats worn for work and the "ladies and gentlemen" straw hats that were vital to the societal times of the early 19th century.
This technique proved invaluable in making cost effective straw bonnets as most women worked in the fields and wore bonnets. The other side of the coin was the bolstering of New England's hat economy which was floundering because of the trade embargo.
In 1810 alone, Massachusetts, had an estimated value in straw bonnets of more than $500,000 dollars - which would convert to over 5 million dollars today. Obviously straw weaving or braiding was an economically vital industry in America during the 1800's.
Credit: Wadsworth Athenaeum in Hartford, CT
The Patent Act of 1790 opened the door for anyone, male or female, to protect his or her invention with a patent. However, because in most states women could not legally own property independent of their husbands, the side effect existed that women inventors didn't bother to patent their new inventions.
Mary Dixon Kies broke that pattern on May 5, 1809.
Unfortunately the original patent file (along with many others) was destroyed in a fire at the United States Patent Office in 1836. Mrs. Kies file was one out of only 20 that had been issued to a woman before the 1840's.
This was a truly a remarkable historical feat and New England's hat industry was one of the few industries that continued to thrive during the war after adopting Mary Dixon Kies' method of straw braiding or straw weaving.
Not a lot is known about Mary Dixon Kies life. Mary (Dixon) Kies was of Irish descent, her father being John Dixon born in 1679 in the Province of Ulster, in the North of Ireland, according to the Dixon genealogy. Her mother was Janet Kennedy, who was the third wife of John Dixon and they were married in Voluntown, CT, August 7, 1741. It would appear that John Dixon was mainly a farmer, as were most of the settlers.
Mary Dixon was born in South Killingly, Connecticut on March 21, 1752. When Mary Dixon married John Kee/Kies, she was the widow of Isaac Pike, and had a son, Isaac Pike, according to the Dixon genealogy. Her husband, John Kies, died on August 18, 1813 in his 63rd year.
Despite her brave and historic act, Mrs. Mary Dixon Kies was unsuccessful in her attempts to profit from her invention.
Mrs. Kies’ invention came only two years after one of the earliest cotton yarn mills in Connecticut opened in Killingly. Mrs. Kies, however, was unable to make a commercial success of her straw weaving process. Despite money invested for experiments both by Mrs. Kies and her son, Daniel Kies, the process became valueless by a sudden change in the fashions of the day.
After the death of her husband, John Kies, she went to live with her son, Daniel, in Brooklyn, until her death. It is said she died penniless in Brooklyn, New York in 1837.
From an article in “The Windham County Transcript” of 1965: “Records say that Mrs. Kies died a pauper, and for the last 128 years her grave has been marked only by an uninscribed field stone."
This author is thrilled to report that when the Grange Master, Mervin Whipple and members of Killingly Grange No. 112 learned of this, they decided to pay proper respects to the unusual woman by erecting on her grave a suitable headstone. A monument now stands in the Old South Killingly cemetery in the memory of Mrs. Mary Dixon Kies, the first woman in the United States to apply for and receive a patent.
A few samples of the straw fabric covered by the Patent and woven by Mrs. Kies survive and were donated to the Danielson Public Library by a great-granddaughter, Miss Delia Taylor of Providence, RI with other samples on display in the Wadsworth Athenaeum in Hartford, CT. (Killingly Historical Society)
This article was written in honor of Women's History Month which occurs in March both in the United States and United Kingdom.