May 052017

On this date in 1809, Mary Dixon Kies (1752 – 1837) was granted a patent for a new technique of weaving straw with silk and thread to make hats, signed by President James Madison. Most historians say that she was the first American woman to receive a patent, however others state that Hannah Slater was the first to file for a patent as early as 1793. Slater supposedly invented a method of producing cotton sewing thread. Disentangling the puzzle is impossible at this point because the US Patent Office was consumed by fire in 1836 destroying all the relevant documents.

Mary’s father, John Dixon, was a farmer born in 1679 in Ireland. Her mother, Janet Kennedy, was John Dixon’s third wife. Mary Dixon was born in Killingly, Connecticut on March 21, 1752. She married Isaac Pike I, and in 1770 they had a son, Isaac Pike II. After his death she married John Kies (1750–1813) who died on August 18, 1813 at age 63. She then lived with her second son, Daniel Kies, in Brooklyn, New York, until her death at age 85 in 1837.

Because of the Napoleonic Wars resulting in the constant threats on US merchant ships, the United States placed an embargo in 1807 on all trade with France and Great Britain, creating a shortage of all kinds of goods imported from Europe including millinery. The straw-weaving industry filled the gap. There were over $500,000 ($9 million in today’s money) worth of straw bonnets produced in Massachusetts alone in 1810.

Mary Kies was not the first woman in the US to innovate in hat-making. In 1798, New Englander Betsy Metcalf invented a method of braiding straw. Her method became very popular, and she employed many women and girls to make her hats. The method created a new industry for girls and women because the straw bonnets could be made at home from local resources, meaning that the women and girls could do work for themselves. Betsy Metcalf can thus be credited with starting the US straw-hat industry. Under the Patent Act of 1790 she could have sought a patent, but like most women at the time, who could not legally hold property, she chose not to. Mary Kies, did apply for a patent, however it’s not clear that she profited from it. Her idea differed from Metcalf’s in that she used thread in the weaving process. First Lady, Dolly Madison, was so pleased by Kies’ innovation that she sent a personal letter applauding her.

It is claimed that Kies’ technique proved valuable in making cost-effective work bonnets, but I can’t find any solid evidence to support this claim. Rather it appears that she did not profit much from her invention and she died in 1837 dependent on her son.

I’ve mentioned Amelia Simmons’ cookbook, American Cookery before because it was the first cookbook written and published in the United States. Since it was published in Connecticut in 1798 is a fitting source for us. The whole first half of the book is taken up with a discourse on various ingredients: flesh, fish fowl, vegetables, fruits, herbs, you name it. The recipes are terse but reasonably easy to follow. This one for foot pie caught my attention because it seems so bizarre. It reminds us that in the days before refrigeration people were a bit cavalier with storing things.

Minced Pies. A Foot Pie.

Scald neets feet, and clean well, (grass fed are best) put them into a large vessel of cold water, which change daily during a week, then boil the feet till tender, and take away the bones, when cold, chop fine, to every four pound minced meat, add one pound of beef suet, and four pound apple raw, and a little salt, chop all together very fine, add one quart of wine, two pound of stoned raisins, one ounce of cinnamon, one ounce mace, and sweeten to your taste; make use of paste No. 3–bake three quarters of an hour.

Weeks after, when you have occasion to use them, carefully raise the top crust, and with a round edg’d spoon, collect the meat into a bason, which warm with additional wine and spices to the taste of your circle, while the crust is also warm’d like a hoe cake, put carefully together and serve up, by this means you can have hot pies through the winter, and enrich’d singly to your company.

I’m not thrilled with the “weeks after” bit. Is she serious? And . . . you can do this throughout the winter? I need a bit more context. What I think she is suggesting is something akin to mincemeat which will keep for months. That is because of the sugar content.

Neat’s foot is an old fashioned term for cow’s foot, which is hard to find. You can sometimes find neatsfoot oil which is used to preserve and waterproof leather shoes, similar to mink oil which I used to use on my hiking boots. Cowheel pie used to be a popular and cheap dish in Lancashire but I have not seen nor heard of it in decades. Cow’s foot, like pig’s trotter is fatty with little in the way of meat on it. Still, if you find some stew them up in a soup.

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