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  • Writer's pictureMatilda Butler

Amazing Story: Who Invented the Sanitary Belt?




Find Creativity Even in the Ordinary

Women and Inventions

Margaret E. Knight and Mary Beatrice Davidson Kenner are two women we should all know about for their inventions changed lives.

A couple of weeks ago, we wrote about Margaret E. Knight <CLICK HERE> and her inventions. She had a mind that “just worked that way.” She was always figuring out how to improve machines. She invented, for example, the flat-bottomed paper bag that your groceries come home in (assuming you forgot to bring your cloth bag). AND she knew to protect her inventions with patents.

The Story of Mary Beatrice Davidson Kenner

Now, we bring you the story of another highly creative woman—an amazing Black woman with inventions, patents, and a passion to make life better -- especially for those with disabilities. Her name is Mary Beatrice Davidson Kenner. Let’s back up to 1918, when she was just six years old.

Squeak. Squeeeek.

“What? Mother’s already leaving for work?”, thought Mary. Awakened early for another day by the squeaky front door, Mary began thinking about a solution that would let her sleep longer. When her mother came home later that day, Mary said, “Mom, don’t you think someone could invent a self-oiling door hinge?”

Mary began to work on this invention. She writes that she wasn’t successful:

“I [hurt] my hands trying to make something that, in my mind, would be good for the door. After that I dropped it, but never forgot it.”

This first effort at an invention wasn’t successful. But then again, she was just six years old!

Then six years later, her family moved from Monroe, North Carolina to Washington, D.C. Although there was much to see and do in DC, Mary's favorite activity was to visit the US Patent and Trademark Office to determine if anyone had already obtained a patent on one of her ideas.

A Dynamic Duo and a Supportive Family

Mary was joined in many of her inventive designs by her sister, Mildred Davidson Austin Smith. From the time they were young, their parents supported their efforts, encouraging them to pursue ideas to solve problems. An uncle had even patented an invention and urged them to value their inventions.

Some Education, but Not as Much as She Wanted

By 1931, Mary was on her way to the well-respected Howard University. But, as was often true in the years of the Great Depression, and especially true for African American families, there was not enough money for her to continue school. Unemployment was 31.7% for whites and over 50% for Black Americans. So Mary left college after only a year and a half and started looking for work.

At first, she could only find employment doing child care. Fortunately, it was not long before she was hired by the Federal government. And although she was diligent at her job, she never quit inventing. Her problem was not ideas or skills to create a prototype or drawing -- it was not having enough money to file a patent.

Eventually, Enough $$$ for a Patent

Let's go back one more time. In 1926, Mary invented a product that she thought had huge potential. What was it? — A belt for sanitary napkins. Depending on your age, you may remember this belt and even owned a few. This was long before the introduction of adhesive disposable pads and tampons. Women were still using cloth pads and rags during their menstrual period. Mary to the rescue: she created an adjustable belt with a built-in, moisture-proof napkin pocket. [BTW, my mother told me she used rags in her teenage years ~Matilda]

“Science and everyday life cannot and should not be separated.” – Mary Beatrice Davidson Kenner

It took 30 years before Mary was able to pursue her first patent on the sanitary belt. Why?

Bias Because She was an African American AND a Woman

Mary Kenner wrote: “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.”

The company sent their representative to Kenner’s house in Washington, DC. As Mary tells the story: “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.”

Thirty years later, she obtained her first patent -- on the sanitary belt.

Mary's walker with tray

Necessity is the Mother of Invention

In 1976, Mary’s sister was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. As the years passed and MS weakened Mildred's body, several of Mary’s inventions focused on ways to make life better for those with MS and similar health problems. Today, the newer rollators---frequently used by people as they age or have disabilities--owe their functionality to Mary. The small tray and even pocket to carry items on the rollators are simply the next iteration of Mary's invention of a walker with a tray.

Mary's toilet roll holder

Mildred, over time, found it hard to grasp the end of a roll of toilet paper. So Mary invented a toilet paper dispenser with paper that was always reachable, as well as a back washer that could be mounted to a shower wall. We find variations on both of these inventions in many places today.

So although most of us never knew her name, Mary Beatrice Davidson Kenner has helped to make our lives better.

Mary, along with her sister Mildred, made inventions ultimately to improve the quality of life. No, they didn't get wealthy. But they knew they were making life better for so many people.

"Every person is born with a creative mind. Everyone has the ability.” ~ Mary Beatrice Davidson Kenner

More Patents than Any Other Black American Woman

Numbers count. Mary Beatrice Davidson Kenner obtained five US patents -- more than any other Black American woman.



Find Creativity Even in the Ordinary

Missed Our Previous Blogs? Check these out!

Rosie the Riveter's Riveting Story -- Find out the connection to Jackie Kennedy's fashion designer and Rosalind Palmer Walter (major funder of public television).

Wendy the Welder (Rosie the Riveter's Co-Worker)

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15 de mai. de 2022

African-American museum in Redwood City - Google Search

Necessity is the mother of invention.

The exhibit in this museum (which has yet to find a permanent home… Sad commentary…) will blow you away, inventions of things we use to this day with no awareness of origin: Black History.

Think MacGyver mindset, creative resourceful improv in the moment, particularly in emergencies, but also if living in stark conditions. We all face this these days when managing basics during catastrophes.

Some matters merit a sense of privacy and yet this relates to 50% of the population, yea 100% if we’re actually taking care of each other, as we should.

I say go for it.


15 de mai. de 2022

Very interesting. I am amazed that a company turned her down because she was black, not aware of the great change her idea would make for women of any color! I remember those belts…


15 de mai. de 2022

I'm embarrassed to say I am "sort of" embarrassed. At least we aren't talking about this over lunch or at a party when we might be overheard. I know I shouldn't feel this way, but...


13 de mai. de 2022

Thank you for bringing Mary into the light. She's a woman worth knowing about. Definitely inspirational.

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