Hats Off to Mary Kiss!

May 5, 1809
Mary Kies Became the First Woman to Receive a U.S. Patent

Have you ever invented something? If you have, you may want to do what Mary Kies did: patent it. 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. She became the first woman to receive a U.S. patent for her method of weaving straw with silk. With her new method, Kies could make and sell beautiful hats such as this one, and, by law, no one else could sell hats just like hers. That’s how a patent works.

What if you come up with a great idea for a new invention? The Good-Hair-Day Hairspray, the perfect spiral football, a backpack that flies you to school. To protect your new invention, you would get a patent. A patent is a government grant that gives the inventor the exclusive right to make, use, or sell an invention, usually for a limited period. Nowadays it’s 16 to 20 years in most countries. Patents are granted to new and useful machines, manufactured products, industrial processes–such as Kies’s method of weaving–and significant improvements of existing processes. Patents encourage entrepreneurs, like weaver and hat maker Mary Kies, to create new and better products all the time.

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.