The National Business League

Founded by Dr. Booker T. Washington – August 23, 1900


Mary Davidson Kenner

Mary Davidson Kenner

Sanitary belt: a predecessor to the maxi pad

Mary Beatrice Davidson Kenner was born into a family of inventors during an era of racism and prejudice, but she continually sought to break barriers in her quest to make life easier for everyday people.

Kenner started coming up with solutions to life’s daily problems at a very young age. As a child, she tried her hand at several inventions, including a self-oiling door hinge, a sponge connected to an umbrella that would soak up rain, and a portable ashtray attachment for a cigarette pack. By the time she was teenager, she began to dream up a new solution to a problem for the everyday woman.

She originally wished to study nursing, but her family couldn’t afford to send her to college. She instead took a desk job in Washington, D.C., spending nights after work devising and iterating upon dozens of inventions. During this time, she revisited an idea she had been working on since her teenaged years – a sanitary belt that would keep moisture-proof napkins in place during a woman’s period. At the time, people were mostly using rags, cloths, and even rubber bloomers for this issue. With this new invention, Kenner envisioned a new life, one that would give her the luxury of a car, a house, and money to support herself. She worked to amass the money to patent the sanitary belt, but unfortunately, when she was finally granted the patent, she could not sell the invention. The company that first showed interest in her invention rejected it after they discovered that she was Black.

Kenner tried to manufacture the belt herself, but obtaining a bank loan was extremely difficult for a Black woman at the time, so the product was never created. Kenner’s invention was ahead of its time, and we can see her insight reflected in the adhesive pads that hit the market in the late 1960s and 1970s.

Despite never making money from her inventions, Kenner continued creating. When her sister Mildred was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, Kenner sought to give her a sense of freedom and independence, so she made a special walker that could hold personal items. Over the years, Kenner’s invention has been iterated and improved upon as a way to help patients with mobility issues. She also invented a toilet paper dispenser that yielded tissue whether pulled from the top or from the bottom, a back washer that could be mounted to a shower wall for hands-free scrubbing. She earned five patents in her lifetime, and in her final years, she was thinking of a way to fix the potholes in Washington D.C. She passed away on January 13, 2006 at the age of 93.