Betsey Metcalf
(1786-1867) and Mary Kies(1752-1837)

Biography researched by Culley S., age 15, Glen Ridge High School, New Jersey

How has learning about this historical girl affected you?
“At first it was frustrating that I could not find information about Betsey Metcalf, but after I was given references and the process became easier, I learned a lot about the beginning of the straw hat industry.  As a person who wears straw hats during the summer months, it was interesting to be assigned to research the girl who began the industry.  Learning about Mary Kies also was nice because it gave me insight into the beginning of women as recognized inventors.  Overall, I enjoyed the experience of working on the article because I was able to learn about girls and women I would not normally inquire about." -Culley S.

Betsey Metcalf revolutionized New England's economy with a straw hat that she made at age 12. Mary Kies was the first woman to apply for a U.S. Patent for the straw hat.


A woman wearing a straw hat, c. 1892.
Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, POS - TH - STO, no. 11 (C size)

The straw hat has been a seaside accessory for more than two centuries.  However, few people know how the hat originated here in the United States of America.  Straw hats found their way to Americans courtesy of Betsey Metcalf, a twelve-year-old girl.

Born near the seaside of Providence, Rhode Island in 1786, Betsey became fascinated with the straw hat after seeing an expensive English straw bonnet in a shop window.  Although Betsey lived well as the daughter of town solicitor Joel Metcalf, she could not afford the bonnet.  She recreated one for herself in 1798, using simple tools and straw from the family barn. 

Betsey designed and executed her straw hat so successfully that other people began requesting bonnets, too.  She shared her new talent with her family and friends at her school, Day’s Academy.  Betsey’s new hat style had great commercial appeal because it could be easily manufactured at very little cost.  It also created a new industry for girls and women because the straw bonnets could be made at home from local resources, so the women and girls could do work for themselves.  Thus, Betsey Metcalf started the American straw-hat industry. 

Betsey Metcalf married Obed Baker in 1807 and moved to Dedham, Massachusetts – where the new industry soon flourished.  Part of the reason that straw hats sold so well was because of the simultaneous invention of the cotton gin – in which a woman, Catherine Littlefield Greene, also played an important role.  The cotton gin made it possible to grow much bigger crops, and field workers, usually African-American slaves, soon wore straw hats to protect them from the Alabama or Mississippi sun, as the plantation economy expanded west.  Because their open weave allowed air to pass through, straw hats were cooler than other forms of headdress, and slave owners bought tens of thousands of them – almost all made by New England women.

Like Catherine Littlefield Greene, Betsey Metcalf chose not to patent her idea on the basis that she did not want her name going to Congress.  At the time, although they were allowed to do so, women did not apply for patents to their inventions or ideas. This refusal to patent the straw-hat pattern and process allowed ample room for Mary Kies, of Killingly, Connecticut, to put her own stamp on the straw bonnet industry. 

Mary was the first woman to ever apply for a patent, and she applied for it so she could take credit for the straw-hat process.  She received the patent from the United States government on May 15, 1809.  When Mary not only applied, but was also granted the patent for her straw hat, the First Lady at the time, Dolley Madison, sent a personal note to Mary thanking her for her input to the industry on behalf of women.   

Mary Kies also could not have chosen a better time to patent her idea.  The government of the United States was trying to limit foreign trading by restricting foreign imports.  This allowed for a greater uptake on the idea of creating and manufacturing straw hats.   

Unfortunately, the original patent contracted by Mary Kies was destroyed in the Patent Office fire in 1836.  On a brighter note, original straw hats created by Mary can still be seen on display at the Bugbee Memorial Library in Killingly, Connecticut as well as at the Wadsworth Athenaeum in Hartford, Connecticut.

The straw bonnet Betsey Metcalf innocently created at age twelve started a whirlwind of change for women not only in style, but also in taking ownership of their ideas.  What Betsey started, Mary Kies finished by patenting the idea for the straw hat and allowing it to be manufactured all over the world. 1  

 

 


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