Thomas Jennings stands in history as a noteworthy figure for being the first Black person to ever receive a patent, but his life should serve as an example of what was, and what could have been, for Black people in the earliest years of the United States.
Thomas Jennings was born in 1791 and worked in a number of jobs before focusing on what would become his chosen career… as a tailor. Jennings’ skills were so admired that people near and far came to him to alter or custom-tailor items of clothing for them. Eventually, Jennings reputation grew such that he was able to open his own store on Church street which grew into one of the largest clothing stores in New York City.
Jennings, of course, found that many of his customers were dismayed when their clothing became soiled, and because of the material used, were unable to use conventional means to clean them. Conventional methods would often ruin the fabric, leaving the person to either continue wearing the items in their soiled condition or to simply discard them. While this would have provided a boon to his business through increased sales, Jennings also hated to see the items, which he worked so hard to create, thrown away. He thus set out experimenting with different solutions and cleaning agents, testing them on various fabrics until he found the right combination to effectively treat and clean them. He called his method “dry-scouring” and it is the process that we now refer to as dry-cleaning.
In 1820, Jennings applied for a patent for his dry-scouring process. In light of the times, he was fortunate that he was a free man, born in the United States, and thus an American citizen. Under the United States patent laws of 1793 (and later, as revised in 1836) a person must sign an oath or declaration stating that they were a citizen of the United States. While there were, apparently, provisions through which a slave could enjoy patent protection, the ability of a slave to seek out, receive and defend a patent was unlikely. Later, in 1958, the patent office changed the laws, stating that since slaves were not citizens, they could not hold a patent. Furthermore, the court (in the famous case Oscar Stuart vs. Ned case) said that the slave owner, not being the true inventor could not apply for a patent either. In true irony, when many of the southern states seceded from the Union to form the Confederate States of America, CSA President Jefferson Davis signed into law legislation permitting slaves to hold patents. For Thomas Jennings, none of this mattered because as a free man, not only was he able to receive a patent in 1821, but he was also able to utilize it for his financial gain. In fact, he made a fortune.
With the success of his business and patent, he became a leader in the abolitionist and civil rights movement in New York City. He was a founder and trustee of the Abyssinian Baptist Church, assistant secretary for the First Annual Convention of the People of Color in Philadelphia in 1831, and helped organize the Legal Rights Association in 1855, raising challenges to discrimination, and funding and organizing legal defenses for court cases.
Thomas Jennings died in 1859 and will go down in history as the first Black person to obtain a patent, but he should rather be seen as an example of a citizen who made the best of his life and sought to use his good fortune to make life better for those around him.