Thomas Jennings developed a method for eliminating filth and grease from textiles in 1821, which led to the development of dry cleaning as we know it today.
Send a thank-you note to the memory of Thomas Jennings the next time you pick up your dry cleaning. Dry scouring, a precursor of modern dry cleaning, was pioneered by Jennings. In 1821, he received a patent for the procedure, making him the first black person in America to do so.
Because he was born free in New York City, Jennings was able to accomplish this. Prior to the Civil War, however, patents were unavailable to the vast majority of black people in America, as an enslaved person’s innovations legally belonged to his or her master.
According to Patricia Carter Sluby’s book ‘The Inventive Spirit of African-Americans’, Jennings began his career as an apprentice to a well-known New York tailor. Later, in Lower Manhattan, he founded what would become a huge and profitable clothing store. When he was 29 years old, he received a patent for his “dry scouring” method of removing filth and grease from clothing. Jennings was successful in patenting a process of “Dry Scouring Clothes, and Woolen Fabrics in general, so that they preserve their original shape, and have the shine and aspect of new,” according to an article in the New York Gazette from March 13 of that year.
However, we’ll never know exactly how the scouring was done. The patent is one of the so-called “X-patents,” a collection of about 10,000 patents awarded by the United States. Between 1790 and 1836, when a fire broke out in Washington’s Blodget’s Hotel, where the patents were being temporarily housed while a new facility was being built, the Patent and Trademark Office was established. The facility was adjacent to a fire station, but it was winter, and the firefighters’ leather hoses had split due to the cold.
Patents were not numbered prior to the fire; instead, they were categorized by their name and issue date. The Patent Office (as it was known at the time) began numbering patents after the fire. Any copies of the burnt patents obtained from the inventors were assigned a number that ended in an ‘X’ to identify them as part of the batch that was destroyed. Approximately 2,800 X-patents have been recovered as of 2004. One of them isn’t Jennings’.
Jennings was so proud of his patent letter, which was signed by Secretary of State—and eventually president—John Quincy Adams, that he framed it and hung it over his bed, according to Sluby. Much of his ostensibly large fortune from the invention was devoted to the battle for abolition. He went on to start or sponsor a number of charities and legal aid organizations, as well as the influential Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem and Freedom’s Journal, America’s first black-owned newspaper.
All of Jennings’ children received an education and went on to be successful professionals and leaders in the abolitionist movement. In 1854, his schoolteacher daughter Elizabeth gained national notice when she boarded a whites-only horse-drawn streetcar in New York and refused to get off, clinging to the window frame as the operator tried to throw her out. Her father hired a lawyer to battle the streetcar company after a letter she wrote about the incident was published in various abolitionist periodicals. The case was successful, and the judge declared that it was illegal to evict black persons from public transit as long as they were “sober, properly mannered, and free from sickness.” The lawyer was a youthful Chester A. Arthur, who would later become President of the United States in 1881.
Though free black Americans like Jennings had the right to patent their innovations, getting a patent was difficult and expensive in reality. Even though the language of patent law was ostensibly color-blind, several black inventors concealed their race to avoid discrimination. In his piece ‘Invention of a Slave’, Brian L. Frye, a professor at the University of Kentucky’s College of Law, says that others “used their white spouses as proxies.” As a result, determining how many African-Americans were involved in early patents is challenging.
It would have been impossible to fight back if a white individual infringed on a black inventor’s patent, according to Petra Moser, an economics professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business.
“They wouldn’t have been able to defend their patents if the judicial system was biased against black inventors,” she argues. The infringer in white would have been taken seriously. “Also, you need money to defend your patent, and black inventors have a harder time getting money.”
According to Frye, it’s possible that some slave masters surreptitiously patented their slaves’ ideas. At least two slave owners applied for patents for their slaves’ ideas, but they were denied because no one could take the patent oath—the enslaved inventor was ineligible for a patent, and the owner was not the inventor.
Despite these obstacles, African-Americans, both enslaved and free, produced a vast array of technology, including steamboat propellers, bedsteads, and cotton scrapers. Some people made money without having a patent. Others had their earnings taken advantage of.
There is still a so-called “patent gap” between whites and blacks nowadays. When compared to whites with the same level of education, half as many African-American and Hispanic college graduates have patents. There are certainly a variety of causes for this, ranging from unequal education to economic inequality to a lack of capital, but one thing is clear: the gap is a loss for everyone.
“Invention necessitates a unique mix of skills, which we’ll call creativity, intelligence, and resilience,” Moser adds. It’s “hugely inefficient, to say the least,” to disregard the entire pool of non-white, non-male inventors.
This Piece of History was Originally Published On smithsonianmag.com