On May 15 1809, Mary Dixon Kies received the first U. S. patent issued to a woman. Kies, a Connecticut native, invented a process for weaving straw with silk or thread. First Lady, Dolley Madison praised her for boosting the nation’s hat industry. Unfortunately, the patent file was destroyed in the great Patent Office fire in 1836. Until about 1840, only 20 other patents were issued to women. The inventions related to apparel, tools, cook stoves, and fire places.
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 many states women could not legally own property independent of their husbands, many women inventors didn’t bother to patent their new inventions. Mary Kies broke that pattern on May 5, 1809.
Mary Kies was not the first American woman to improve hat making. In 1798, New Englander Betsy Metcalf invented a method of braiding straw. Her method became very popular, and she employed many women to make her hats, but she didn’t patent her process. When asked why, Metcalf said she didn’t want her name being sent to Congress. Kies had a different perspective, and she couldn’t have picked a better time to secure her new product, because the U.S. government had stopped importing European goods. (Napolean was at war with many nations of Europe at the time, and one way he tried to win the war was to block trade and hurt his enemies economically. The U.S. did not want to be drawn into this conflict.) President Madison was looking for American industries to replace the lost European goods. First lady Dolley Madison said hats off to Mary Kies for providing just such an opportunity.