How Mary Kenner and her inventions took on two social taboos: black women in business and periods

Every time I sit down to write my Frequent Fascinations at the end of each month, I always start off by saying “Well, it’s that time of the month.” Then I realize that that could be perceived in a way different from what I mean. But today, I’m meaning it in the other way. In the period way. In the menstruating way (which, by the way, I’ve been pondering what the hell the word “men’ is doing at the start of that word.) Today, we are talking about the little-known inventor of the sanitary belt, Mary Beatrice Davidson Kenner, whose invention paved the way for the maxi pad in the 1970s and normal pads today.

Mary’s inventing career started long before she even knew what a period was. Born in 1912 in Monroe, North Carolina, Mary grew up in a family whose passion was finding clever devices to better people’s lives. Her grandfather saw the need for a way of communicating multiple messages to guide trains so he created a tricolor light signal. Her sister, Mildred saw a hole in the board game industry for a family game that celebrated the kind of traditions and fun that her family shared so she patented “Family Treedition,” which was manufactured in several languages including Braille.

The girls’ father, Sidney, spent the time he wasn’t serving his congregation as a preacher to invent and patent a traveling clothes presser that could be stored in a suitcase and would press a traveler’s clothes while en route. When a New York company offered him $20,000 to manufacture it, he refused, believing he could make more by producing and selling them himself. In the end, he only ended up making one prototype which sold for $14.

Regardless, the family saw the process of inventing as problem-solving, as drawing from things in their daily lives that could be improved. The first of these things for Mary was the squeaky back door of the house that would wake Mary up each time her mother left early each morning for work. When she was six, she asked her mother, “Mom, don’t you think someone could invent a self-oiling door hinge?” She decided that she could be that someone but ended up hurting her hands “trying to make something that, in my mind, would be good for the door. After that, I dropped it, but never forgot it.”

She spent her childhood brainstorming new improvements and inventions, drawing up models and assembling prototypes. For instance, she created a sponge tip that could be attached to the end of a wet umbrella to stop rainwater from dripping on the floor. She recognized that most passengers seated in the folded rumble seats of cars usually became victim to poor weather so she created a convertible roof that would extend over the back of the car to protect each passenger equally. She also created a portable ashtray that could be secured onto a cigarette packet.

Image Credit: The Source

She began to realize the worth of her inventions as something more than just a hobby and, as she graduated from high school in 1931 and enrolled at Howard University, she began to think she could make something more of her talent. Unfortunately, her time at Howard was cut short because she was not able to scrape together enough money for the tuition. Instead, she took on whatever jobs she could find, eventually settling into a full-time position as a federal employee to support her designing in her free time.

It didn’t take long for her to amass a portfolio of brilliant inventions that she hoped would not only add to her limited funds but also help to spread her solutions to everyday problems to more people who might benefit from them. However, to do so, she would need to file for a patent, an expensive and tedious process that could cost the equivalent of several hundred dollars today.

In the mid-1950s, Mary began to save up enough money to file her first patent: the sanitary belt. At that point, tampons were available but to use one was considered “indecent,” so few women took advantage of its benefits and, as self-adhesive had yet to be invented, disposable pads were not yet available. Instead, most women used and reused rags and cloth pads during their periods. This was not only uncomfortable, as you can imagine, it was also inconvenient to change and was unsanitary. Many women chose to stay indoors as much as they could during their period to mitigate any external contaminants. These rags also offered little protection for clothes from leaks and subsequent stains.

Enter Mary’s sanitary belt. The contraption consisted of elastic straps that worked to hold the pad in place once the belt was secured by safety pins or clips. She continued to improve the belt by adding a moisture-proof napkin pocket that helped to add leak protection. By 1956, she was ready to file a patent.

Image Credit: United States Patent and Trademark Office

Shortly after, a company reached out to Mary with a serious interest in marketing her product and sent out a representative to meet with her to draft a contract. “I was so jubilant,” she said. “I saw houses, cars, and everything about to come my way. Sorry to say, when they found out I was black, their interest dropped. The representative went back to New York and informed me the company was no longer interested.” Many more companies would follow suit and it would take her nearly 30 years to finally patent her invention.

It was a stunning blow but Mary simply shifted her focus and energy onto her next big invention, refusing to let something out of her control define her. Inspired by the walking frame that aided her sister with her developing multiple sclerosis, Mary devised and patented a tray and soft pocket that could attach to the frame, allowing her to carry items around with her.

She, like everyone else, was frustrated by the fact that there were certain places on the back that were very hard to reach and clean. So she created an attachment for a shower that could be moved against to scrub a person’s back. Genius. I want one.

I also want her new toilet paper holder that would hold the loose end of the roll in an easily accessible place for toilet-goers. It was a similar mechanism to the feed on packing tape and something that should absolutely be required in public bathrooms with those huge, 12’’ diameter rolls.

Image Credit: European Patent Office

In total, she filed five patents, which was, and still is, more than any other African-American woman in history. However, of all of these innovative patents, none proved particularly lucrative and she lived a relatively simple life as a flower arranger near Washington, D.C., passing away in 2006.

Even though I started this post focusing on Mary’s contribution to the evolution of feminine products, her work and life go far beyond that. Her main intention in creating each of her designs and patents was to improve everyone’s everyday life just a bit, mitigating frustrations and giving them the ability to take back control of things they had no power over, whether that be a particularly painful period, that damn loose end of the toilet paper, or, in her case, the prejudice against black women in business. Her own personal invention to take back control was to keep on doing what she loved and inspiring others to do the same, urging that “every person is born with a creative mind. Everyone has that ability.”

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