Mary Beatrice Davidson Kenner
Born: May 17, 1912, Monroe, North Carolina
Died: Jan. 13, 2006, Washington, D.C.
Best known for: filing the most patents of any African American woman, most notably, the sanitary belt
African American inventor Mary Beatrice Davidson Kenner had no formal training and had to grapple with racism throughout her career. Regardless, she filed five patents — the most of any African American woman to this day —for items she created with the goal of making people’s daily lives easier. Her most notable inventions include the sanitary belt, a precursor to the maxi pad; a serving tray and soft pocket that attached to a walker; a back washer that attached to a shower wall; and a toilet paper holder that ensured the loose end of the paper was always reachable.
Even as a child growing up in North Carolina, Kenner was interested in creating tools to help make everyday life more convenient. Her first idea — a self-oiling door hinge — reportedly came to her when she was only six years old. Though the idea never came to fruition, her ingenuity continued.
Throughout her childhood, Kenner would draw her ideas, some of which included a sponge tip that would soak up rainwater off an umbrella and a portable ashtray that would attach to a cigarette carton. When Kenner was 12, her family moved to Washington, D.C., where she would roam the United States Patent and Trademark Office to see if anyone had beaten her to patent any of her ideas.
Kenner was not the only inventor in her family. Her maternal grandfather Robert Phromeberger invented a tricolor signal light for trains. Her sister, Mildred Davidson Austin Smith grew up to patent her own family board game. Her father, Sidney Nathaniel Davidson was a preacher who patented a clothes presser that would fit in a suitcase. He turned down a company’s offer to manufacture and sell it himself, which was ultimately a failure.
After graduating high school, Kenner enrolled at Howard University but dropped out when she was unable to afford tuition. After she dropped out, Kenner took odd jobs and became a federal employee during WWII. Ultimately, she became a professional florist but continued creating in her spare time. By 1957, Kenner had saved enough money to file her first patent — an elastic belt that held sanitary napkins in place. During this time, adhesive maxi pads had not yet been invented. This moisture-proof napkin pocket built into the belt prevented more leaks than the cloth pads and rags women were using at the time.
One company was interested in marketing Kenner’s idea, but when a representative learned she was Black, the interest dropped.
“One day I was contacted by a company that expressed an interest in marketing my idea. I was so jubilant … I saw houses, cars and everything about to come my way,” she said in Laura F. Jeffrey’s book, “Amazing American Inventors of the 20th Century.” “Sorry to say, when they found out I was black, their interest dropped.”
Because of this racism, the sanitary belt was not patented until 30 years after Kenner introduced it.
Nevertheless, Kenner’s invention was a crucial step for women’s comfort that revolutionized menstrual hygiene during a time when women had limited options.
Kenner continued inventing, and ultimately filed five patents — more than any other African American woman in history. Kenner’s inventions were largely targeted toward making daily life easier. When her sister became sick with multiple sclerosis, Kenner patented a serving tray and soft pocket that attached to her walker. She also patented a toilet paper holder that made sure the loose end of the roll was always reachable and a back washer that could be attached to the shower wall.
Kenner never became rich from her inventions, but her novel ideas centered on accessibility and ease paved the way for more. She died in 2006 in Washington, D.C.