Celebrating Black History Month

This month we celebrate the legacy of Thomas Jennings.

In 1821, Thomas Jennings patented a method for removing dirt and grease from clothing that would lead to today’s dry cleaning industry. Jennings invented a process called ‘dry scouring,’ a forerunner of modern dry cleaning. He patented the process in 1821, making him likely the first black person in America to receive a patent.

According to The Inventive Spirit of African-Americans by Patricia Carter Sluby, Jennings started out as an apprentice to a prominent New York tailor. Later, he opened what would become a large and successful clothing shop in Lower Manhattan. He secured a patent for his “dry scouring” method of removing dirt and grease from clothing in 1821, when he was 29 years old. An item in the New York Gazette from March 13 of that year announces Jennings’ success in patenting a method of “Dry Scouring Clothes, and Woolen Fabrics in general, so that they keep their original shape, and have the polish and appearance of new.”

A Hidden Patent

We’ll never know exactly what the scouring method involved. The patent is one of the so-called “X-patents,” a group of 10,000 or so patents issued by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office between its creation in 1790 and 1836, when a fire began in Washington’s Blodget’s Hotel, where the patents were being temporarily stored while a new facility was being built. There was a fire station next door to the facility, but it was winter and the firefighters’ leather hoses had cracked in the cold.

Before the fire, patents weren’t numbered, just catalogued by their name and issue date. After the fire, the Patent Office (as it was called then) began numbering patents. Any copies of the burned patents that were obtained from the inventors were given a number as well, ending in ‘X’ to mark them as part of the destroyed batch. As of 2004, about 2,800 of the X-patents have been recovered. Jennings’ is not one of them.

Thomas Jennings

Sluby writes that Jennings’ was so proud of his patent letter, which was signed by Secretary of State—and later president—John Quincy Adams, he hung it in a gilded frame over his bed. Much of his apparently substantial earnings from the invention went towards the fight for abolition. He would go on to found or support a number of charities and legal aid societies, as well as Freedom’s Journal, the first black-owned newspaper in America, and the influential Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem.

A Lasting Legacy

All of Jennings’ children were educated and became successful in their careers and prominent in the abolition movement. His daughter Elizabeth, a schoolteacher, rose to national attention in 1854 when she boarded a whites-only horse-drawn streetcar in New York and refused to get off, hanging on to the window frame when the conductor tried to toss her out. A letter she wrote about the incident was published in several abolitionist papers, and her father hired a lawyer to fight the streetcar company. The case was successful; the judge ruled that it was unlawful to eject black people from public transportation so long as they were “sober, well behaved, and free from disease.” The lawyer was a young Chester A. Arthur, who would go on to become president in 1881.

So the next time you pick up your clothes at Dri Clean Depot, send a “thank you” to the memory of Thomas Jennings.

Team Dri Clean Depot