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Examiners at work at the Patent Office in Washington sketched by Theo. R. Davis (1869)

The Peripatetic U. S. Patent Office: Locations 1790 to Present

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This post was researched and written by JJ Harbster, Head, Science Reference Section and Nate Smith, Reference and Research Specialist, Science Reference Section.

There is a debatable story about how Elisha Gray, a professor at Oberlin College, showed up at the Patent Office on the same day (February 14, 1876) as Alexander Graham Bell to apply for a caveat for the telephone while Bell was applying for his telephone patent. Actually, these gentlemen didn’t show up themselves, their lawyers did. The story continues to suggest that Bell’s lawyer was at the Patent Office first and was the 5th entry recorded that day, while Gray’s lawyer was the 39th. The U.S. Patent Office awarded Bell the first patent for a telephone rather than honor Gray’s caveat. Of course, the events of that day are much more complicated and controversial.  But this is not why we are telling you this story.

The reason for our story is to point out that these individuals physically travelled and walked into the Patent Office Building, located in Washington D.C., to hand-deliver a patent application/caveat.  In 1876, the Patent Office was located at F and G Streets and 7th and 9th Streets, N.W. – what we know today as Chinatown.  It served as a storage facility for the numerous patent records and models, but it was also a place where lawyers, inventors, business executives, engineers, entrepreneurs, and the like conducted research, submitted paperwork, and consulted with the patent examiners. The Patent Office Building in the nineteenth century was also a tourist attraction, as it had the first public exhibition hall in Washington. It boasted exhibits of patent models, art, and even the Declaration of Independence. Without a doubt, the Patent Office Building was an important place, and remains so in the age of the Internet.

This blog post was inspired by a researcher who submitted a question to our Ask a Librarian service requesting all the locations of the Patent Office.  To answer his question, we had to sift through newspaper articles, congressional hearings, issues of the Journal of the Patent Office Society and The Patent Office Pony: A History of the Early Patent Office by Kenneth W. Dobyns, which is a go-to resource for the history of the Patent Office.

Since its founding, the Patent Office (headquarters) has lived in numerous homes. There are 21 locations, if you include the various State Department buildings, temporary housing at D.C. City Hall during the mid-1800s, the quick stay at a tobacco warehouse in Richmond, Virginia during WWII, and an even quicker stay at Gravelly Point, north of Washington National Airport, in 1946.  All known locations have been listed below.

Patent Board/ State Department (New York, Philadelphia, and initial locations in Washington, D.C.) 1790-1810

[Washington, D.C., ca. 1803, showing a pastoral view with the President’s House, Gales’ House, and the Old Patent Office…]
Although the first patent statute was passed on April 5, 1790, it did not create a Patent Office. If you were an inventor during this time you would file a petition for a patent with the Secretary of State. A committee (aka Patent Board) that consisted of the Secretary of State, the Secretary of War, and the Attorney General, generally met on the last Saturday of every month to determine if the patent should be granted. If the Board approved, they delivered the petition to the President to be signed and then it was returned to the Secretary of State who then granted the patent.

It can be argued that the first location in 1790 of the Patent Office, or more appropriately the Patent Board, was located at the State Department on Broadway in New York City. By the end of 1790, the Government began its move to Philadelphia, and thus, the Patent Board moved with the State Department to its new location on Market Street in Philadelphia. The Patent Board was dissolved by the Patent Act of 1793 and patents were then under the sole authority of Secretary of State.  While in Philadelphia, the location of the State Department changed several times: 1) 307 Market Street (1791-1793); 2) 287 Market Street (1793-1794); 3) Sixth and Arch Streets (1794-1796); 4) North Street (1796-1797); and finally, 5) 12 South Fifth Street (1797-1800).  During outbreaks of yellow fever in Philadelphia, the offices of the State Department were temporarily housed in the New Jersey State House in Trenton between August and November of the years 1797, 1798, and 1799.

The “Six buildings,” one of the early State Department locations in D.C.

In accordance with the Residence Act of 1790, after spending a decade in Philadelphia, the federal government made its final move to Washington, D.C. (aka Washington City) in 1800, where patents continued to be issued as part of the State Department’s functions. The year 1802 is an important one in U.S. patent history- this is the year that a Superintendent of Patents was appointed by the Secretary of State and staff was hired to work collectively in what would be known as the Patent Office. From 1800- 1810 the patent office staff resided in three different buildings: the Treasury Department Building, located east of the White House where the current Treasury Department stands (June-August 1800), one of the “Six Buildings,” located on the 2100 block of Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., (September 1800- May 1801), and the “New Building,” adjacent to the White House (1801-1810).


Blodgett’s Hotel (Washington, D.C.) 1810-1836, D.C. City Hall 1836-1842

Blodgett’s Hotel, Washington, D.C.

In an act passed on April 28, 1810, Congress granted the President authority to build or purchase a building to accommodate the General Post Office and the Patent Office.    During the War of 1812, the British burned Washington.  As Blodgett’s Hotel was the only government building left standing, Congress ousted the Patent Office and the Post Office from the building and used it as a meeting house until the Old Brick Capitol could be built. The Patent Office resumed occupancy in January of 1816.  During the time of congressional occupation of Blodgett’s Hotel, the Patent Office was run from a private residence with rent being paid to William Cocking.  After Blodgett’s Hotel burned down in 1836, the Patent Office temporarily worked out of Commissioner of Patents Henry Leavitt Ellsworth’s house on C Street. It next moved to the newly built D.C. City Hall at Judiciary Square, what is now the District of Columbia Court of Appeals, while a dedicated Patent Office was being built.  The Patent Office remained in D.C. City hall from 1836-1842.

Patent Office Building (F and G Streets and 7th and 9th Streets, N.W., Washington, D.C.) 1842-1932

Print shows an exterior view from the street of the U.S. Patent Office in Washington, D.C. (1865-1869)

The Patent Office moved into this dedicated building in 1842 before it was completed and remained there until 1932.  This building is now The Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture, part of the Smithsonian Institution and home to the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, and the Archives of American Art Lawrence A. Fleischman Gallery.  During this time, the Patent Office was transferred from the State Department to the Department of the Interior, then called the Home Department, by an act of Congress passed on March 3, 1849.  The Patent Office was under the Department of the Interior for the next 76 years. When President Calvin Coolidge issued Executive Order 4175 on March 17, 1925, the Patent Office was transferred to the Department of Commerce, which had formerly been the Department of Commerce and Labor until their split in 1913.  President Coolidge was able to do this because an act of Congress passed on February 14, 1903 not only authorized the creation of the Department of Commerce and Labor, but also authorized the President to “…transfer at any time the whole or any part of any office, bureau, division or other branch of the public service engaged in statistical or scientific work, from the Department of State, the Department of the Treasury, the Department of War, the Department of Justice, the Post Office Department, the Department of the Navy or the Department of the Interior, to the Department of Commerce and Labor.”

During the Civil War, the First Rhode Island Regiment was briefly quartered in the model rooms of the Patent Office in April and May of 1861.  Later that year, the Patent Office began serving as a hospital for wounded soldiers.  Clara Barton, who was serving as a copyist at the Patent Office at the time, tended to wounded soldiers before going on to collect and bring much needed medical supplies to the battlefields, where she tended to both Union and Confederate soldiers.  She would later become the founder of the American Red Cross in 1881.  The Patent Office was used as a hospital from October 1861 to January 1863.

While Congress attempted to regulate trademarks in the Trademark Act of 1870, the Supreme Court unanimously struck down the law in 1879 in the Trade-Mark Cases, because the Copyright Clause of the Constitution did not give Congress the power to regulate trademarks.  In another attempt in 1881, this time successful, through powers given by the Commerce Clause, Congress enacted that the Patent Office would be responsible for registering trademarks.

Department of Commerce, Herbert Hoover Building (Washington, D.C.) 1932-1969

Herbert Hoover Federal Building located in downtown Washington, D.C.

Construction on the new home of the Department of Commerce began on October 4, 1927, and on June 10, 1929 President Herbert Hoover laid the cornerstone.  The building was later renamed in his honor in 1982.  At the time the building was completed, it was the largest in the world and was specifically designed for each agency that would be housed within: the National Geodetic Survey (then called the Coast and Geodetic Survey) had astronomical equipment installed on the roof; the Census Bureau was given computing machinery in the basement; and the Patent Office was given storage space for their more than 3 million patents and the Great Hall was used as a public space for patent searching.

Old Export Leaf Tobacco Company warehouse (Richmond, Virginia); Gravelly Point (Arlington, Virginia) 1941-1946

Due to the outbreak of World War II and the need to make space for defense workers, part of the Patent Office began moving to Richmond in December of 1941. The building where they worked was the Export Leaf Tobacco Company warehouse at 900 N. Lombardy Street, which was originally built and operated by R.A. Patterson Tobacco Company.  It now houses a U-Haul self-storage facility near the campus of Virginia Commonwealth University.  However, this was short lived and many of the patent units slowly returned to the Commerce Building in Washington, D.C., though some were temporarily housed in Temporary Building No. 7 at Gravelly Point, north of Washington National Airport in 1946.  This building was part of several that had been used by the Army Air Corps during the war.  The last employees left Richmond in October of 1946.

Crystal City (Arlington, Virginia) 1967-2005 and Alexandria, Virginia 2003-present

Aerial view of Crystal City, Virginia. Photograph by Carol M. Highsmith

In need of more space, the Patent Office began moving to Crystal City in 1967, and by 1969 all units had been moved across the Potomac River to the office’s new home in Crystal Plaza 3 and Crystal Plaza 4.  During its stay in Crystal City, the Patent Office was renamed the Patent and Trademark Office by an act of Congress, effective upon enactment on January 2, 1975.  The agency later renamed itself the United States Patent and Trademark Office on March 29, 2000.  In the Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office Consolidation, Volume 2 released in April 1998, it was stated that the office occupied 16 separate buildings in Crystal City and was in need of a new consolidated campus.  They began the move to their new location in Alexandria in 2003, and the last of the units were in place in 2005.

And there you have it! A history of the locations of the (United States) Patent (and Trademark) Office.

How we apply for patents today has changed since the 1790 patent statue was passed. Likewise, the number of patents granted has greatly increased. During the first year, 3 patents were granted, and in 2019 391,103 patents were granted (the number of applications far exceeds this number).

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Comments (4)

  1. While the story of migration of the patent office over the last 230 years is fascinating, I am curious to know if, during this extensive period, a full set of patent records where available outside the patent office. Did all prior art searches of the time require a visit to a singular office?

    • Great question! Up to a certain point, the only way to view previous patents was to perform research at the Patent Office itself. From what I can tell, the earliest dissemination of patent information that was widely available to the public would be when Scientific American began publishing a weekly list of granted patents in July 1846. In 1871, in accordance with USC Title 35 Section 12, the Patent and Trademark Resource Center Program began and provided printed copies of granted patents to libraries around the country for use by the public. The number of centers has grown and now operate in nearly every state.

  2. What is the name of the Act (?) ordering the U.S. Patent Office employees to relocate to Richmond, VA, during WW2?
    Did the U.S. Postal Office also move there?

    • It may not have been a law but an administrative order, but you may want to reach out to the Law Library to double check. However, I did find that in the First War Powers Act 1941 (55 Stat 833 from the bill HR 6233) that was passed on December 18 says in § 601 “Coordination of executive bureaus, offices, etc., by President for national defense and to prosecute the war; issuance of regulations.” It doesn’t explicitly name agencies however. I also saw an Executive Order for War Mobilization, but it didn’t reference the Patent Office. According to the Department of Commerce library, it seems to have been done to make the physical space available.
      At the same time some of the holdings of the Library of Congress like the Constitution and such were sent to Ft. Knox for the duration of the war. Interestingly, the Library had been displaying a copy of the Magna Carta and that was also sent to Ft. Knox.

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