Mary Beatrice Davidson Kenner (May 17, 1912 – January 13, 2006) was an African-American inventor most noted for her development of the adjustable sanitary belt, although racial discrimination caused her patent for the sanitary belt to be prevented for thirty years. Kenner received five patents, which includes a carrier attachment for invalid walker and bathroom tissue holder.
Kenner invented an adjustable sanitary belt with an inbuilt, moisture-proof napkin pocket. She completed the patent application for her invention in 1954. In 1956, the application was approved. The invention was described as an eliminator for “chafing and irritation normally caused by devices of [its] class.” However, the company that first showed interest in her invention, the Sonn-Nap-Pack Company, rejected it after they discovered that she was African American. Kenner never made any money from the sanitary belt, because her patent expired and became public domain, allowing it to be manufactured freely. She later invented a modification of the sanitary belt that included a “moisture resistant pocket.”
In an interview, Mary Kenner said, “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 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.”
Between 1956 and 1987 she received five total patents for her household and personal item creations. She shared the patent on the toilet tissue holder with her sister, Mildred Davidson. She also held a patent on a back washer that could be mounted on the shower or bathtub wall, also known as a backwash This invention was patented in 1987 patent number 4696068. She also patented the carrier attachment for a walker in 1959, after Mildred developed multiple sclerosis.
Mary and her sister Mildred patented many practical inventions. They didn’t have technical education, but they were both exceptional at spotting ways to make peoples’ lives better. Together, they invented the sanitary belt. Later, Mary invented the moisture-resistant pocket for the belt. While disabled from multiple sclerosis, Mary went on to invent the walker and the toilet-tissue holder.
Kenner’s first patent was in 1957 for the sanitary belt. While she originally invented the sanitary belt in the 1920s, she couldn’t afford a patent. Over time she improved her earlier version and other versions that were patented before hers. The sanitary belt aimed to prevent the leakage of menstrual blood on clothing, which was a common problem for women at the time. The Sonn-Nap-Pack Company got word of this invention in 1957 and contacted her intending to market her invention, however when they discovered that she was Black, they declined. Beltless pads were invented in the 1970s and, as tampons became more popular, women stopped using sanitary belts.
In 1976 Kenner patented an attachment for a walker or wheelchair that included a hard-surfaced tray and a soft pocket for carrying items. She and her sister invented a toilet paper holder they patented in 1982. Her final patent, granted on September 29, 1987, was for a mounted back washer and massager.
Mary Davison Kenner married James “Jabbo” Kenner in 1951. He died in 1983. They were foster parents and adopted Woodrow, one of their five foster kids. Mary Beatrice Davidson Kenner died on January 13, 2006, in Washington D.C. at the age of 93.
Kenner didn’t receive any awards or formal recognition for her work. However, her inventions and contributions helped pave the way for subsequent innovations. Kenner still holds the record (five) for the greatest number of patents awarded a Black woman by the U.S. government.
Kenner was born in Charlotte, North Carolina, and came from a family of inventors. Her father, whom she credited for her initial interest in discovery, was Sidney Nathaniel Davidson (June 1890 – November 1958). In his lifetime, he patented a clothing press which would fit in suitcases, though he ultimately made no money on the invention. Her father also patented a window washer for trains and invented a stretcher with wheels for ambulances. Her grandfather invented a light signal for trains, though this invention was stolen from him by a white man. Her sister, Mildred Davidson Austin Smith (1916–1993), invented, patented, and commercially sold board games.
Kenner graduated from high school in 1931. She attended Howard University, although she was unable to finish due to financial difficulties. Kenner did not receive any college degree or professional training. Women at the time were kept out of scientific establishments or academic institutions.
Mary Beatrice Davidson Kenner
May 17, 1912
Charlotte, North Carolina, U.S.
January 13, 2006 (aged 93) Washington, D.C., U.S.
United States of America
Sidney Nathaniel Davidson
Mildred Davidson Austin Smith
Kenner and her family moved to Washington, D.C. when she was young and here is where she stayed to keep updating on her opportunities to have her ideas patented at the United States Patent and Trademark Office.
Mary Kenner worked as a professional floral arranger and had four flower shops scattered around the Washington, DC, area. She operated the business for 23 years after dropping out of college due to financial difficulties. During World War II, Mary found a job with the federal government, working for the Census Bureau and General Accounting Office. She would chaperone younger women to attend military base dances in Washington, D.C. One night while chaperoning, Kenner met and fell in love with a soldier, whom she married in 1945. They divorced in 1950. In 1951, Kenner was married to renowned heavyweight boxer James “Jabbo” Kenner. Together, they lived in McLean, Virginia, near the Kennedy’s complex. They were foster parents to five boys.
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