A Woman to Know: Mary Kies

With the patent to Mary Kies, women could now protect both the originality and the integrity of their creations. — Paul D. Buchanan

With the patent to Mary Kies, women could now protect both the originality and the integrity of their creations. — Paul D. Buchanan

(image via New York Public Library)

There were other female inventors before Mary Kies, of course. But she was the first to get her name on a patent.

As a wife and mother in the late 19th century, Mary worked in the straw hat industry in part to support her family. She ran a small milliner’s shop from her home in Connecticut, and in 1809, she realized she’d created something entirely new — she’d created a better way to weave together silk and straw in her hats.

Technically, the Patent Act of 1790 opened the door for any American to protect their inventions. But because married women were still barred from owning property themselves, many couldn’t get the approval necessary to do so.

But in the midst of a tariff war with Europe, the government wanted to boost American makers. President Madison signed the hat patent to Mary Kies, giving her the recognition for a “new and useful improvement in weaving straw with silk or thread.” First Lady Dolley Madison, a hat lover herself, even sent Mary a personal note of congratulations.

But just as suddenly as Mary won success, she suffered a setback. Fashions changed and suddenly, women no longer wanted to buy straw-silk hats like Mary’s. She had to move to Brooklyn and live with her son to make ends meet.

In 1836, the Patent Office caught fire, destroying 10,000 patents — including any record of Mary’s invention. She died just the next year, buried in a pauper’s grave.

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