Mary Kenner was an African-American inventor who revamped the world of feminine care with the invention of the sanitary belt (aka the maxi pad). Though her invention attracted multiple feminine hygiene companies, it was rejected by most when they realized Mary was African-American. Unfortunately, the maxi pad wasn’t patented until 30 years after its creation. Nevertheless, Mary went on to patent other household items including the bathroom tissue holder, a back washer that mounted on the wall of the shower, and the carrier attachment on walkers for disabled people.
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.
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.
In 1912, she 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 [it’s] 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.