Though little is known about the details of her life, Mary Dixon Kies has become a familiar name in U.S. history as the first woman ever to be issued a U.S. patent.
On May 15, 1809, Kies received her patent for a process of weaving straw with silk or thread, a method which was employed mainly for creating women’s hats and bonnets. A resident of Killingly, Connecticut, Kies’s action was taken nearly twenty years after the Patent Act of 1790 secured the rights of all citizens, whether male or female, to protect their inventions with a patent. At the time, since women could not legally own property independent of their husbands, they typically did not seek to patent their inventions.
Washington, D.C. had recently been chartered by Congress as a city with its own government in 1802. That year, the first official U.S. Patent Office was established within its limits. When Kies secured her patent, she was reportedly praised by the First Lady of the period, Dolley Madison, for her contribution to the hat industry. The timing worked particularly well for Kies because the United States, in an attempt to maintain neutrality when France was at war with several other nations in Europe, had ceased importing European goods. The U.S. government had just begun to encourage more robust domestic manufacturing, and Kies was an excellent role model.
Sadly, Kies’s original patent file was destroyed in a tragic fire at the Patent Office in 1836, in which virtually every document and model was destroyed. Approximately 10,000 patent records were lost, as well as hundreds of volumes of original drawings and notebooks.
By 1840, approximately 20 U.S. patents had been issued to women, mostly for inventions related to cooking, tools, and clothing. The numbers steadily grew. Today, hundreds of thousands of women apply for and receive U.S. patents every year, with more than 12 percent of all patent applications including a woman inventor.