Mary Kenner: Period Pioneer

February is Black History Month. It dedicated to highlighting the triumphs and struggles of African Americans throughout U.S. history (the UK’s counterpart takes place in October). To mark Black History Month here at Red Moon Gang, I’d like to talk to you about Mary Kenner.

Who is Mary Kenner?

Mary Beatrice Davidson Kenner is an inventor who invented multiple products, some of which we still use today. Her inventions focus on making daily life easier. For example, she patented a toilet paper holder and a back washer that could be attached to the shower. She also patented a serving tray and soft pocket that could be attached to a walker when her sister became sick with multiple sclerosis.

Mary Kenner has the most patents of any African American woman and her notable invention was the sanitary belt.

Early life

Mary Kenner was born in 1912 in North Carolina and came from a family of inventors. She credits her father for an interest in inventing.

Sidney Nathaniel Davidson patented a clothing press which could fit in suitcases but did not make any money from the invention. He also patented a window washer for trains and invented a stretcher with wheels for ambulances. His father and Mary Kenner’s grandfather, Robert Phromeberger invented a light signal for trains, however this was stolen by a white man. Her sister also created a family board game, they truly were a family of inventors!

It should come as no surprise that Mary has been inventing since a young age. After noticing a door in the family home wouldn’t stop squeaking, she invented a device to stop the loud noise at the age of 6. Throughout her childhood, Kenner would draw up multiple ideas. Some of which included a sponge tip that would soak up rainwater off an umbrella and a portable ashtray that could attach to a cigarette carton.

When she was 12, her family moved to Washington, D.C. She would frequently roam the United States Patent and Trademark Office to see if any of her ideas had already been patented. In most cases, they had not.

How Mary Kenner came to create the sanitary belt

After graduating high school, Mary Kenner enrolled at Howard University but was forced to drop when she could not afford tuition. She took odd jobs and became a federal employee during WWII. She eventually went on to become a professional florist and continued to invent in her spare time. 

During the 1920’s, she came up with an elastic belt that held ‘sanitary napkins’ in place. Menstruation was very much considered a taboo at this time and almost nobody spoke about it. Those with menstruated often made their own period products at home from cloths and rags. There were some commercial products available on the market, but they were only really used when those who menstruated had to leave the house for school or work.

The most notable brand at the time was Kotex. In 1927, an efficiency expert Lillian Moller conducted a survey which explored how American women dealt with menstruation. In this review, Kotex pads were described as ‘too large, too long, too thick and too stiff’. The solution? Mary Kenner’s belt!

Here’s why this invention is important

It wasn’t until 1957 that Mary had saved up enough money to file her first patent. It is easy to disregard the sanitary belt as something horrifying from the past, but Mary Kenner’s invention actually played an important role in the development of period products.

As the adhesive pads we know today had not yet been invented, Kenner came up with the idea of a belt that would hold a menstrual pad in place. The moisture-proof napkin pocket was built into the belt. It was described as an eliminator of ‘chafing and irritation normally caused by devices of [its] class. Most importantly, it prevented more leaks than what people were using at the time. 

The Sonn-Nap-Pack Company got word of this invention and contacted her with aim to take it to the market. However when a representative learned she was a Black woman, they soon changed their minds.

“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. Sorry to say, when they found out I was Black, their interested dropped.”

– Mary Kenner

As a result of this racism, Kenner did not make any money from her innovative invention. The patent expired and once it became public domain, it could be manufactured freely. 

Mary Kenner has been erased from menstrual history

When we look back and try to pinpoint where the first period pad originated, it is often wrongly attributed. Many state that the period pads grew from a Benjamin Franklin invention that was created to help stop wounded soldiers from bleeding during the war. However, it was the moisture proof seal of Mary Kenner’s invention that made it revolutionary. 

Kenner invented the first generation of what we now know to be called sanitary pads or period pads, and she did not receive any formal recognition for her work. 

We have Mary Kenner to thank for this crucial step in revolutionising menstrual care and prioritising comfort during a time where limited options were available. 

She paved the way for all the fantastic products we have today!

Red Moon Gang book cover

Red Moon Gang: The Book

Filled with information and free from cultural hang-ups, this gender-neutral book is directed at anybody that's ever dealt with having a period. Writer and influencer Tara Costello pulls together her research and experience into a book that's wide-ranging, inclusive, and fun. Boldly illustrated by Mary Purdie, Red Moon Gang tackles every aspect of the menstrual cycle--from the biology and science behind why you bleed every month, to the latest findings on hormonal fluctuations (aka, why you're PMSing so bad). It takes a deep dive into the different types of menstrual products available, including their pros and cons, and covers various period conditions such as endometriosis and polycystic ovary syndrome. Drawing from her own experience, Costello explores how having a period shaped her relationship to her body and her place in the world. And she discusses topics that aren't generally covered in health class too--such as how periods are a particular challenge to those experiencing body dysmorphia, individuals living in poverty, and disabled people. Finally, she offers up a Period Toolkit, listing products and retailers she loves, tips on how to make menstruating easier, and resources for further education.

Available NOW!

Learn more