In the 1920s, a creative teenager named Mary Davidson came up with an idea for what would eventually become the modern sanitary pad.
Before the “sanitary pad” became an affordable commercial product, women dealt with their periods with homemade rags or tampons. But tampons were considered indecent for young women to use. That prohibition, plus the stigma of menstruation, discouraged women from leaving the house during their periods.
In the 1920s, a creative teenager named Mary Davidson, not content to be kenneled once a month, came up with an idea for what would eventually become a “Sanitary belt with moisture proof napkin pocket.” It would have an adjustable “waist-encircling member,” a “supporting structure for a sanitary napkin,”and “a pocket having an enlarged opening in the upper surface thereof which provides for insertion and removal of the napkin[…]” It was among the first belted sanitary pads, later to evolve into the stick-on type we see on present-day store shelves. (The patent bears her married name, Mary Kenner.)
The patent’s issue year is 1957, about thirty years after Kenner had the idea. The delay in patenting wasn’t due to any lack of ambition; Kenner, who came from a family of inventors, was also busy creating other things, like a novel toilet-paper dispenser and a personal back washer. The rest of the time she directed her creativity to making floral arrangements, and running four florist shops that she owned around Washington, DC. Thirty years from idea to patent is not unheard-of, but there was one obstacle, almost impossible to overcome in the 1950s, and still hobbling innovation to this day: Mary Kenner was Black. In a story in Style Magazine, Kenner recalled her excitement when a company showed interest in her invention:
“One day I was contacted by a company that expressed an interest in marketing my idea. I was jubilant,” she said in an interview. “I saw houses, cars, and everything about to come to my way.” A representative made their way to Washington to speak with Kenner and she continues to explain that they had rejected her by saying, “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.”(1)
But Kenner had that trait that separates inventions from ideas: persistence. She didn’t give up, and finally Patent #2881761A was granted in 1957.
The sad and too-often-told part of this tale was that Kenner never made money from her invention. But one could see by the 25 patent citations listed under hers that the innovation led the way to commercial products that would free women from an antiquated and oppressive taboo. It’s also interesting to see that the five instances of prior art cited by Ms. Kenner’s invention, from the to the “Catamenial Soak” of 1884 to a precurser Sanitary Belt by Bessie Lesselbaum, were all invented by women. Because women, and especially Black women, lacked (and still lack) the power and resources of male-dominated business, their innovations eventually entered the public domain without having ever been licensed or sold as products during their patent term, which would have conferred at least some of the spoils to the inventor. Later, of course, the sanitary napkin was capitalized upon by companies like Proctor & Gamble for billions of dollars in revenue.
The innovators, creative women who had the temerity to bring these innovations out of hiding, may not have gotten their due in monetary reward, but their conviction and persistence improved the lives of millions of women for generations afterward. Mary Kenner attested to that drive when she said, “Every person is born with a creative mind. Everyone has that ability.”
This original content is the property of Keeley DeAngelo LLP. Please cite accordingly.
- As quoted in Style Magazine:
Style Magazine: Mary Beatrice Davidson Kenner: The Forgotten Inventor Who Changed Women’s Health Forever
Photo credits: Helen LaRuse – https://www.etsy.com/listing/71769061/sanitary-elastic-belt-circa-1900-female
Beatrice Davidson Kenner (May 17, 1912 – January 13, 2006) Photo: Fair Use