MARY KENNER (1912-2006)
Mary Beatrice Davidson Kenner invented many products that are still in use today, and she holds the most patents of any African American woman. Kenner was born in Monroe, North Carolina, on May 17, 1912. Her father was inventor Sidney Nathaniel Davidson, and her mother’s identity is unspecified in public documents; she has one sister, Mildred Davidson Austin Smith.
Kenner patented several inventions in her 40s, but she began inventing at the age of six, when she attempted to create a self-oiling door hinge. Inventing was something that ran in the family. Her maternal grandfather, Robert Phromeberger, is best known for inventing a tricolour light signal for trains and an ambulance stretcher with wheels. Her father patented a suitcase-sized clothes presser in 1914. Her sister created “Family Treedition,” a family board game, in 1980.
As a child, Mary Kenner dreamed of a convertible roof that would go over the car’s folding rumble seat, a sponge tip at the end of an umbrella which would absorb rainwater, and a portable ashtray that would connect itself to a cigarette pack. When her family relocated to Washington, D.C. in 1924, she walked the halls of the United States Patent and Trademark Office to become acquainted with the structure and the patent process.
Kenner’s first patent was for a sanitary belt in 1957. She invented the sanitary belt in the 1920s but couldn’t afford a patent. She enhanced her earlier version as well as other versions that were patented before hers over time. The sanitary belt was designed to prevent menstrual blood leakage on clothing, which was a common issue for women at the time. When the Sonn-Nap-Pack Company learned of her invention in 1957, they contacted her with the intention of marketing it, but when they discovered she was Black, they turned it down. Beltless pads were introduced in the 1970s, and as tampons became more common, women abandoned the use of sanitary belts.
Kenner patented a walker or wheelchair attachment with a hard-surfaced tray and a soft pocket for carrying things in 1976. In 1982, she and her sister patented a toilet paper holder. Her final patent, issued on September 29, 1987, was for a back washer and massager mounted on a wall.
In 1951, Mary Davison Kenner wedded James “Jabbo” Kenner. He passed away in 1983. They were foster parents who adopted one of their five foster kids, Woodrow. Mary Beatrice Davidson Kenner, 93, died on January 13, 2006, in Washington, D.C.
Kenner received no awards or formal recognition for her efforts. Her inventions and contributions, on the other hand, paved the way for successive innovations. Kenner still holds the record (five) for the most patents granted to a Black woman by the United States government.