Black History Month: Celebrating the Man Who Invented Dry Cleaning

Thomas Jennings was a pioneer in the dry cleaning industry and among inventors.

In 1821, Jennings became the first African-American to be granted a patent, according to the Intellectual Property Owners Education Foundation. The patent protected his invention of “dry scouring,” a process that paved the way for modern-day dry cleaning.

Jennings became a tailor in New York City in the 1820s, then went on to start a clothing shop. While running that business, the 29-year-old Jennings developed dry scouring, a method of removing dirt and grease from delicate clothing.

According to National Clothesline magazine, many of Jennings’ customers at the clothing shop were upset when their garments
became dirty. But because of the natural materials used to make them, the garments couldn’t be washed the old-fashioned way; doing so would cause them to shrink. As a result, people either continued wearing the dirty clothes or simply tossed them out, the magazine says.

“While Jennings would have profited from making and selling new clothes to replace the soiled items, he also hated to see the garments, which he had worked hard to create, cast aside,” National Clothesline says. “He 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, thus coming up with the method that led to his patent for ‘dry scouring.’”

The Intellectual Property Owners Education Foundation says the Jennings patent “generated considerable controversy,” since slaves at that time couldn’t patent their own inventions. Because Jennings was African-American, some people attempted to block his patent application, which was filed in 1820.

The patent exclusion for slaves dated back to 1793, two years after Jennings was born. It was based on the legal premise that “the master is the owner of the fruits of the labor of the slave both manual and intellectual,” the foundation points out.

Jennings, however, was not a slave; he was born a free man. Therefore, he was entitled to ownership of his dry-scouring invention, which received U.S. Patent 3306x in 1821. In 1861, five years after Jennings died, U.S. patent rights were extended to slaves, the foundation says.

He used some of the profit from his invention to buy his family out of slavery. But much of the money Jennings earned from the patent went toward the abolition movement, which sought to end slavery in the U.S.  He was one of five New York delegates to the first-ever Convention of Free People of Color, held in 1831 in Philadelphia, according to National Clothesline.

Jennings also started a number of charities and legal aid groups, as well as Freedom’s Journal, the first black-owned newspaper in the U.S., and Harlem’s influential Abyssinian Baptist Church, according to Smithsonian magazine.  He was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2015.

“Jennings’ life is a model of what happens when people of virtue have the freedom to use their skill to meet needs in the marketplace and contribute to the common good,” the Acton Institute says.