December 6, 2020

Thomas L. Jennings – Patent Holding Inventor of Dry Cleaning & Revolutionary Tailor

Once upon a time in Black Entrepreneur History was an African American man named Thomas L. Jennings who founded his own tailoring business and revolutionized the apparel industry becoming the first African American man to own a patent as a US citizen for inventing Dry Cleaning, what he called Dry Scouring Clothes.

Born on January 1, 1791 a free man in New York City, it was here that he leaned the skill of tailoring and opened his own shop. His tailoring business was successful, but he knew that he process of cleaning and preparing clothes for clientele could have been much better.

Therefore, Thomas got to work and began to figure out what methods would be better fit for apparel and make clothes look much better and not become ruined during cleaning. He experimented until he invented the process called dry scouring, known as dry cleaning today. His new method didn’t ruin the clothing like the previous methods of cleaning, but his invented method enhanced the overall look and quality after wash while preserving the apparel.

He was able to patent Dry Scouring Clothes (US 3306X Patent Number) in New York, NY as a free US citizen as an African American man on March 3, 1821 which was ground breaking at the time. It was after his patented invention that the revenue from the invention and his new dry cleaning/tailoring business allowed him to gain the freedom of his wife and child.

Note: If he would have been enslaved, his invention would have been ended up being claimed by the white man who "owned" him by law. The law stated that intellectual and manual inventions of any Black enslaved person couldn't belong to him, but would be property of the slave owner and that enslaved Black people were not citizens though born in America, thus, couldn't legally hold patents. This wasn't the case for Thomas Jennings because, thankfully, he was born free and didn't fall under that hindering law.

Thomas married an African American woman who was enslaved named Elizabeth out of the state of Delaware. She had been made an indentured servant for many years by law after slavery was abolished in the state. She had to work under people for a set number of years, however, it was Thomas who was able to buy her freedom and the freedom of his child, Matilda who was born in 1824. Afterwards, he and Elizabeth had two more children – Elizabeth and James E. – who were both born free.

As he gained success from his dry cleaning invention and freed his family, he joined the abolitionist movement. He would end up acquiring defense for his daughter Elizabeth Jennings who sat in a whites only section of the street car. She was harshly removed from the street car and immediately arrested.

Thomas sprung into action, gaining legal defense for his daughter, and she won the fight against the privately owned street car company, making her a leader in civil rights.

Thomas L. Jennings also:

  • co-founded and organized the Legal Rights Association (1855) which fought for civil rights of Black people and their legal defense
  • became Assistant Secretary for 1st Annual Convention of People of Color in Philadelphia (1831)

Death

Thomas L. Jennings passed away on February 12, 1859 in Manhattan, NY and was buried in Cypress Hill Cemetery in Brooklyn, NY. In 2015, he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame for his US 3306x invention – dry cleaning.

Jennings revolutionized the business of tailoring and apparel because his invention is the reason for the successful businesses of dry cleaning today.

Sources

[1]Press and Sun-Bulletin (Binghamton, New York) 25 Feb 1960, Thu Page 6

National Inventors Hall of Fame

Nashville Business Incubation Center

Find A Grave. Find A Grave. http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi.