Photo of the Day

Caresse Crosby and her whippet Clytoris. 1922.

The Incredible Life of the Inventor of the Modern Brassiere

She was also a pioneering publisher and, later, a princess

Every morning, millions of women around the world wake up and put a bra on. It’s an everyday task, something that few probably put much thought into.  Perhaps we should instead celebrate the greatest perk (pun intended) that bras provide: For over 100 years, women have been able to experience the joy of taking off the constricting garment after a long day. And celebrating in this manner is actually in line with 19-year-old socialite Mary Phelps Jacob’s intention when she first created the “Backless Brassiere” just over a century ago.

If you’re desperate to take your bra off at the end of the day, you’re probably wearing the wrong size bra. Sorry ladies, but it’s a fact that 75 percent of women wear the wrong size, forcing them to deal with unnecessary pain and uncomfortable breasts.

Mary Phelps Jacob was born on January 30, 1891, Mary Phelps Jacob – known as “Polly” to her family – came into a world of power and privilege. Her family were direct decedents of William Bradford, the first governor of the Plymouth Colony, and Robert Fulton, the inventor of the steamboat. Although nowhere near as rich as the Rockefellers or Vanderbilts, but Polly’s family nevertheless had enough money to own three large estates in New York City, Long Island and Watertown, Connecticut. Polly grew up in an age when a family’s name was as important as the balance of their bank accounts. Based on her last name, Polly was able to attend the best private schools, the most exclusive cotillions, the fanciest horse riding academies… even a garden party hosted by King George V in 1914.

Harry and Polly Crosby shortly after their marriage in Paris, 1922. PHOTOGRAPHER UNKNOWN/PUBLIC DOMAIN

In fact, it was Polly’s “coming out” party in 1910 that caused her to create the modern bra. Before this, women were expected to wear uncomfortable corsets to support their busts – a social convention that had been contrived 350 years earlier by Catherine de’ Medici, the wife of King Henry II of France. Unfortunately (or not), the corset simply wouldn’t work with Polly’s choice of dress – a tight-fitting number with a plunging neckline. The corset’s whalebone stayed stuck out of the top of her dress, and overall she looked like she was wearing a life jacket underneath the dress. Undaunted, Polly called in her maid, and the two of them took a pair of silk handkerchiefs and some pink ribbon and fashioned something resembling a modern bra.

But it was lightweight [and you would] tie it around your neck. It looks like a halter top bikini, I guess, but not quite so conforming. And compared to the restrictive, metal corsets that women were used to jamming their bodies into, the bra was the epitome of relief. However, although Jacob wore her newfangled bra to the ball (and was complimented for her ability to do things like, well, move)

Women at the time probably didn’t wear them out of the house much. But they certainly would have worn them inside the house, because most women loosened their corsets at home just to be comfortable.

Polly had designed an alternative to the corset. The corset’s reign was starting to topple. An unhealthy and painful device designed to narrow an adult women’s waist to 13, 12, 11 and even 10 or less inches, the corset is attributed to Catherine de Médicis, wife of King Henri II of France. She enforced a ban on thick waists at court attendance’s (1550’s) and started over 350 years of whalebones, steel rods and midriff torture.

The First Bra Was Made of Handkerchiefs.

Polly wore her new bra to the party and turned heads. Not only was she wearing considerably less under her dress than most of the other women, she was also thrilled to tell everyone about it. Society may have been scandalized, but the girls went crazy for this new garment. So light! So comfortable! No whale bones making a stomach sandwich with your ribs!

Polly’s creation proved to be quite a hit with her friends and family members. But it wasn’t until a complete stranger sent Polly a dollar along with a letter begging for one of her bras that Polly realized that the bra could be a commercial success.

Accordingly, the U.S. Patent Office awarded Polly the first American patent for a brassiere on November 3, 1914, and Polly went into business under the name “Caresse Crosby.” Sadly, Polly apparently didn’t have any interest in running a business, and she quickly sold her patent to the Warner Brothers Corset Company of Bridgeport, Connecticut for a mere $1,500.

Warner Brothers would make an estimated $15 million over the next thirty years with Polly’s patent.

The bra was not invented on November 3, 1914. Women have been binding and otherwise supporting their breasts for, literally, ages; the first bras may well date back to ancient Greece, where women would wrap bands of fabric across their chests, tying or pinning them in the back. And the “brassiere,” as a widespread concept—the word comes from the French for “upper arm”—is generally thought to have originated with the DeBevoise Company, which used the term in advertisements for its whale-bone-supported camisoles. (French, then as now, had a certain je ne sais quoi with English-speaking consumers.) Vogue began talking about brassieres in 1907; in 1911, the word merited an entry in the Oxford English Dictionary.

But the bra—the garment that lifts and separates, via cups and straps—became part of the world, officially, on November 3, 1914. That was the day the United States Patent and Trademark Office granted a patent to Mary Phelps Jacobs for the garment she called a “brassiere.”

The benefits of the new garment, Jacobs’s patent application explained, extended far beyond fashion. The bra, she argued, would allow women the freedom of movement that corsets had long prevented. Specifically, she wrote:

It is among the objects of the present invention to provide a garment in which a number of features of novelty and utility are combined, among which are the provision of a garment which has no back and therefore does not interfere with any design of evening gown that may be chosen; one which is capable of universal fit to such an extent that for commercial handling it need be made in but few sizes, with reasonable certainty that the size and shape of a single garment will be suitable for a considerable variety of different customers; and to provide a garment which is characterized by extreme simplicity by freedom from bones so that it may be finished with laces or embroideries for wear beneath a sheer waist or diaphanous gown, and which when worn is both comfortable and cool and so efficient that it may be worn even by persons engaged in violent exercise such as tennis; and which has other advantages that are characteristic of the invention herein set forth.

The main advantage? The bra, Jacobs noted, “does not confine the person anywhere except where it is needed.”

As a young, healthy, affluent young woman, Mary Phelps Jacob (also known as Caresse Crosby) was a regular in the debutante ball scene, attending 3-4 balls each evening. At one ball, Jacob became uncomfortable and felt conscious in her corset which was oversized and stuck through her gown rather unattractively. Jacob was quick off the mark and gathered two silk handkerchiefs and a ribbon, fashioning it into a makeshift brassiere.

In 1915, Polly married Richard Rogers Peabody, a member of the famous New England Peabody family of bankers, governors, Harvard professors, attorneys and businessmen. The couple quickly had two children, but Polly found herself troubled by her husband’s lack of direction. He was indifferent towards the children, and apparently only enjoyed drinking and chasing fire engines (a strange hobby he had picked up at Harvard). When Richard returned from WWI with a severe case of shell shock and a full-blown case of alcoholism, Polly knew the marriage was in deep trouble.

Polly’s life began anew when she met Harry Crosby, the son of yet another blue blood family from Boston. Harry had left school to volunteer for the American Field Service Ambulance Corps in France during the war. There he had several near-death experiences, including driving an ambulance that was completely destroyed by a German artillery shell (Harry emerged, literally, without a scratch).

Harry had just returned to college in 1921 when he met Polly, and it’s said that he fell in love with her almost instantly. He confessed his love for her in a “Tunnel of Love” at a local amusement park (presumably, it wasn’t a cliché at the time), and the two attended church together a couple of weeks later. This, of course, made for instant gossip fodder for Boston’s blue bloods. Harry begged Polly to divorce Richard (who was in and out of “sanitariums” for his alcoholism) and even once threatened suicide if she didn’t leave her husband.

Harry’s love for Polly was such that he went on a six-day bender and quit his job at Shawmut National Bank, a job he’d had for only eight months. Harry was becoming an embarrassment to his family, so his uncle – financier J.P. Morgan – shipped him off to Paris to work at Morgan, Harjes & Co., the Paris branch of Morgan’s banking empire. Polly was already in Paris at the time but left in a fit of jealous rage shortly after Crosby’s arrival. Harry proposed to her via telegram (she had divorced Richard at this point), and the next day he boarded the Aquitania (sister ship of the Mauretania and Lusitania) bound for New York. On September 9, 1922, Harry and Polly were married in the Municipal Building in New York City. Two days later, they moved back to Paris.

The 1800s – THE METAL GIRDLE & CORSET EYELETS. The 1800s brought another significant shift in fashion, with women’s waistlines lowering into a more natural position, encouraging a shorter corset. Corsets became padded, easing their way into a more mainstream, mass-produced stage. With the advent of mass production, whalebone became harder to find and therefore cosets became more expensive to produce. By 1850, mass-produced corsets began to be boned with steel. With eyelets increasing in popularity, tight-lacing was the height of fashion increasing the health problems of many upper-class women. Girdles started to become a popular alternative to the heavy boned corset towards the end of the 19th Century. Girdles generally sat lower on the body and extended past the hips to maintain shape. These girdles were easier to wear and became elasticised towards the beginning of the 1900s. Girdles are significant in that they were the first garment that split the corset into an upper and lower section, the lower section being the girdle. The invention of the girdle enabled the development of the brasserie.

It was in Paris that their lives really became interesting. The Crosby’ private lives were as wild as their social scene. Their open marriage led to affairs on both sides. Harry painted his fingernails, wore a black gardenia in a buttonhole, and had the bottoms of his feet tattooed. They bought their own tombstones, kept them on the roof of their apartment building, and grew fond of sunbathing naked on them. They roared around Paris in a green limousine convertible, with their whippets in the backseat wearing goggles.

Beyond the book business, the Crosbys’ spectacular Gatsby-like bacchanals, brazenly open marriage and prodigious ingenuity at marketing gave them a certain mystique. It was Harry who declared that Caresse needed a new name and that he would choose it. Clytoris, an early suggestion, was sensibly saved for the family’s second whippet (the first was named Narcisse Noir). They told Caresse’s daughter Polleen that she was named after a Greek goddess.

Harry’s toenails were painted red and strange symbols were tattooed between his shoulder blades and on the soles of his feet. London’s Daily Mirror speculated on psychological motives, while New York’s Daily Newsblamed poetry and passion. Death itself had been the motive, others speculated, just as aspiring poet Harry’s life had been his greatest artwork. Harry called cigarettes ‘coffin nails’ and knew very well that the drugs he was using held dangers, while the couple’s caretaker at their holiday home was also the village grave digger Harry had erect a stone – inscribed ‘Caresse & Harry’ – in its grounds.

The Crosbys have probably been neglected in literary history because they were what Neil Pearson calls ‘dilettantes’, frivolous interlopers in the serious world of 20th-century literature. But in their war on the repressive cruelty of social convention and the deadening impact of puritanical morals, the Crosbys could be very cruel themselves. In Morocco, Harry and Caresse took a 13-year-old dancing girl called Zora to bed with them. Harry’s one known homosexual experience, another holiday dalliance with a boy of unspecified youth, left him in intense, if predictably short-lived, raptures.

Otherwise, Harry didn’t much care for children, which meant Caresse’s son and daughter suffered during her time with him, shuffled around as they were to keep them out of his way. Harry had wooed Caresse’s children as much as he had her at first; once she was his, he had them packed off to boarding school. Their friends held ‘rape parties’ and paid to see female circumcisions to add to their stores of scandalous anecdotes.

They practically embodied the term “idle rich”, buying apartments, country houses and racehorses. But the couple’s relationship quickly took a Bohemian bent. Harry had convinced Polly to legally change her name to “Caresse”, and the two explored the world of open marriage, opium smoking and mutual suicide pacts. Although he would always love Polly (err, Caresse), during this time Harry fell in love with fellow expatriate and Boston Brahmin Constance Coolidge and a fourteen-year-old girl named “Nubile”. He also continued his odd ways – in 1927 he inherited the book collection of his cousin Walter Van Rensselaer Berry, who had been a lawyer, diplomat, and close friend of Henry James, Edith Wharton and Marcel Proust. Although Harry kept many of the books, he would often take delight in taking a priceless first edition and slipping it into one of the flea market stalls that lined the Seine.

Harry and Caresse loved poetry and prose, so in April of 1927, the couple founded their own publishing company, Éditions Narcisse. Initially, it was a vanity imprint that only published the couple’s own poetry. But in 1928 the couple changed the name to the Black Sun Press, and the company quickly gained a reputation for making beautiful books. This was thanks to a printer named Roger Lescaret, a hitherto unknown typographical genius who had mostly printed funeral notices before meeting the Crosbys. Unfortunately, Black Sun reflected the eclectic tastes of its owners. The imprint’s first non-Crosby books were a Hindu “love manual” and a reprint of Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher.

In time, however, the couple sought out works from new, unusual and unknown authors. In this, Harry and Caresse showed an incredible knack for spotting literary talent. Black Sun would be one of the first (if not the first) publishing houses to print the works of 20th century giants such as James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, Kay Boyle, Hart Crane, Ernest Hemingway, Rene Crevel, T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound.

To give a modern analogy, it’s as if I, with no prior experience, started a small record company and managed to sign The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Elvis Presley, Led Zepplin and Pink Floyd before they were famous. Mary Phelps Jacob’s impact on modern literature was simply staggering.

Caresses’ already strange life would take an even darker turn in 1928. That’s when Harry met Josephine Noyes Rotch, a 20 year-old whose ancestors founded Provincetown, Massachusetts in 1690. Harry fell instantly in love, and the couple had a passionate affair until Josephine married some time later that same year.

The 1500s – THE WHALEBONE CORSET. Women from upper classes in English societies began to accentuate their feminine frame and tighten their waist with whalebone corsets. This trend lasted well into the 1800s, with many women favouring tight underbust lace up bodices that accentuated their breasts in low-cut gowns. The corsets themselves were made by threading whalebone or cane through the fabric to give rigidity and support. Many women experienced serious internal damage to their heart, lungs, circulation, breasts, stomach, liver, colon, uterus, gall bladder and various muscles due to tight-lacing which came into fashion around the 1700s. Suddenly, we’re a LOT more thankful for our bras!

Josephine’s husband was still in college and busy studying most of the time, and so she quickly became bored with her life. She rekindled her affair with Harry in 1929, when the Crosbys returned to New York for a family visit. Harry and Josephine checked in to a hotel in Detroit and spent the next four days eating room service, smoking opium and having sex.

On December 7, 1929, the two returned to New York.

On December 10, the couple was found in bed. Josephine had a .25 caliber bullet hole in her left temple, and Harry had a similar hole in his right temple. He was found with one arm wrapped around Josephine and the gun in his other hand. The couple left no suicide note, and for days New York newspapers ran stories wondering what exactly had happened.

When Caresse Crosby wrote her autobiography a quarter of a century after her husband’s suicide, she’d moved on in numerous ways – starting pro-peace movements and campaigning for prisoners of war; moving around the world, getting to know (or perhaps collecting) T.E. Lawrence, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Allen Ginsberg and many other artists, writers, and activists.

As for the enduring power of her and Harry’s love, we’ll never know. Harry’s diaries prove he afforded her a unique status in relation to his mistresses but Caresse still felt the need to doctor some less flattering entries about her (as well as some of his tributes to other women) when they were first published.

Yet Caresse, still bookended her own life story with an extravagantly romantic gesture, the charmingly self-satisfied amalgam of their names that she and Harry had devised early in the eight-year span they’d spent together, and printed in their very first books:

C

A

HARRY

E

S

S

E

Caresse kept the Black Sun Press going, and in 1933 she met a then-penniless Henry Miller in Paris. Upon his return to the US in 1940, Miller found his work branded as “pornography”, and he could not get anything published. In fact, Miller was so broke that he was reduced to writing pornography for an Oklahoma oilman for a dollar a page. Miller really wanted to travel the US by car and write about it (as Jack Kerouac would do with On The Road several years later), but he was still on the hook for 200 pages for the oilman (which amounted to almost $3000 in modern dollars). He thought of Caresse, who was already writing porn for fun with Anaïs Nin’s “smut club”. Nin (along with Caresse, Harvey Breit, Robert Duncan and George Barker) took up Miller’s cause, drowning the oil man under an avalanche of pornography that kept him begging for more. Caresse in particular enjoyed the task, and she’d write late into the night while her newest husband – a football player named Bert Young she’d met while visiting her daughter in California – drank himself to sleep each night.

The 1940s – THE BULLET BRA & WW2. With the men away at war, women in the 1940s stepped up into the workforce in spades to fill the gaps. The working woman couldn’t wear a corset all day in a factory or office, nor could she wear the eccentric flapper bra. So what should she wear for support? Due to an increase in communications between the front line and western media, military lingo slipped into the publics vocabulary. It was played on in many industries, including women’s clothing. The torpedo or “bullet” bra shot to popularity due to an ad campaign promising women “maximum projection” on the job. It wouldn’t be until the 1950s that this bra would be a sexual icon, popularised by icons Marilyn Monroe and Lana Turner.

Bert didn’t care much for Caresses’ literary friends and was often absent from the couple’s home in Bowling Green, Virginia. In fact, the entire marriage seems pretty inexplicable – one wonders if sex was the only thing they had in common, as Bert was 20 years her junior. Caresse, however, didn’t lack for company, as Salvador Dalí, Nin and Miller were frequent (and often long-term) visitors.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the couple divorced in 1941, and the nomadic Polly then moved to Washington DC, where she opened the city’s first modern art gallery. She also started a literary magazine called Portfolio: An Intercontinental Quarterly, but could only afford to publish six issues before shutting it down. At this time Polly also became interested in politics, founding groups called Citizens of the World and Women Against War (which is unrelated to the modern group of the same name). It was during this time that she met yet another genius, the American architect and inventor Buckminster Fuller. Fuller shared her views, and the two tried to open a “Citizens of the World centre” in Delphi, Greece. This was strongly opposed by the Greek government, so Polly made plans to build a similar centre (complete with Fuller-designed geodesic dome) in Cyprus. This also came to nothing.

Crosby’s castle, Rocca Sinibalda, in Latium, Italy. ALESSANDRO/CC BY 2.0

At the age of 60, while on a tour of Italy, Caresse fell in love with a run-down castle near Rome named Castello di Rocca Sinibalda. She bought the castle, which came with a title, making her Princess Caresse Crosby. Caresse turned the castle into an artist’s colony for her friends and spent the rest of her life dividing her time between its hallways and the U.S.

Caresse” turned the castle into a haven for artists and authors. Polly found the winter climate at Roccasinibalda a bit too cold for her liking, so she frequently moved between there, Hampton Manor (her house in Bowling Green), a home in Washington, DC, a huge apartment at 137 East 54th Street in New York City (where Miller lived during his lean years), as well as a home in Rome. In 1953, Polly published her autobiography, The Passionate Years. She would eventually pass away in Rome on January 24, 1970, from pneumonia, a complication from an experimental heart surgery she underwent at the Mayo Clinic.

Just before she died, a documentary filmmaker made a short movie about life in her castle. While giving him a tour, 70-year-old Caresse flashed the camera. No doubt her breasts were marvellously well supported.

25th July 1964: Mrs Caresse Crosby takes a luxury ride around the grounds of Roccasinibalda, her vast estate just outside Rome. After restoring the crumbling building, which dates back to the Renaissance, she turned it into a residential centre for artists. (Photo by Keystone Features/Getty Images)

It’s interesting that the bra would later become a symbol of oppression for the feminist movement, given that Polly initially liberated women from the much less comfortable corset, not to mention led one of the most libertine lifestyles of the 20th century. Although it’s an urban legend that feminists burned their bras at rallies in the 1960s, it is true that many women visibly and theatrically threw their bras into trash cans at several protests.

One of the most legendary protests by second-wave feminists took place on Sept. 7, 1968, when nearly 400 women protested the Miss America pageant outside the Atlantic City Convention Center.

As far as any serious scholar has been able to determine, no early feminist demonstration burned bras! The best guess is that images of draft card burning and images of women tossing bras into trash cans merged in many minds, and thus was created a vivid memory that just wasn’t so.

Media commentators, the same ones who renamed the women’s liberation movement with the term “Women’s Lib,” took up the term and promoted it. Perhaps there were some bra-burnings in imitation of the supposed leading-edge demonstrations that didn’t really happen, though so far there’s been no documentation of those, either. The infamous demonstration that gave birth to this rumour was the 1968 protest of the Miss America contest. Bras, girdles, nylons and other articles of constricting clothing were tossed in a trash can.

The Miss America Pageant that took place on September 7, 1968, was no ordinary pageant. Hundreds of feminist activists showed up on the Atlantic City Boardwalk to enact their “Miss America Protest.” They distributed publicity materials titled “No More Miss America!”

One report has the New York Times quoting Robin Morgan saying that bras would be burned. There is a New York Times article from September 8, 1968, in which Morgan promises that nothing dangerous like burning bras will be done, “just a symbolic bra-burning.” Symbolic.

There was one report on September 8, 1968, in the Press of Atlantic City, with the title “Bra-burners blitz boardwalk.” A reporter for the Press, Jon Katz, remembered years later that there was a brief fire in the trash can — but apparently, no one else remembers that fire. And other reporters did not report a fire. Another example of conflating memories?

The Miss America Protest apparently gave birth to one of the greatest myths of the women’s rights movement: the myth of bra burning. The protesters at the Miss America Pageant threw items of their oppression into a “freedom trash can.” Among these items of oppression were girdles, high-heeled shoes, some bras, copies of Playboy magazine, and hair curlers. The women never lit these items on fire; throwing them out was the symbolism of the day. It has been reported that the women attempted to get a permit to burn the items but were denied because of the danger fire would pose to the wooden Atlantic City Boardwalk.

The intent to set them on fire may have been what sparked the rumour that bras actually were burned. There is no documented instance where 1960s feminists burned their bras, although the legend persists.

Feminists protested Miss America again in 1969, although the second protest was smaller and did not receive much attention. The Women’s Liberation Movement continued to grow and develop, with more protests occurring and the more feminist groups being formed over the next few years.

Perhaps amusingly, going braless was initially a symbol of “female freedom”… until feminists discovered that braless women were titillating to men… and then bras came back into vogue again.

An unidentified member of the Women’s Liberation Party drops a brassiere in the trash barrel in protest of the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City, N.J., on Sept. 7, 1968. Yes, really. As beauty queens competed for the crown inside the convention hall, protesters put a crown on a live sheep on the boardwalk, comparing the beauty pageant to livestock at the county fair.The sheep crowning was one of several “guerilla theater” tactics protesters used to critique the pageant. They also auctioned a life-size Miss America that was chained to several protesters, suggesting women are “chained” to the beauty standards they’re expected to uphold.

Other points in the history of the brassiere worth mentioning:

In 1875, manufacturers George Frost and George Phelps patented the ‘Union Under-Flannel’, a no bones, no eyelets, and no laces or pulleys under-outfit.

In 1893, a woman named Marie Tucek patented the ‘breast supporter’; the device included separate pockets for the breasts and straps that went over the shoulder, fastened by hook-and-eye closures.

In 1889, corset-maker Herminie Cadolle invented the ‘Well-Being’ or ‘Bien-être’, a bra-like device sold as a health aid. The corset’s support for the breasts squeezed up from below. Cadolle changed breast support to the shoulders down.

World War I, dealt the corset a fatal blow when the U.S. War Industries Board called on women to stop buying corsets in 1917.  It freed up some 28,000 tons of metal!

In 1928, a Russian immigrant named Ida Rosenthal founded Maidenform. Ida was responsible for grouping women into bust-size categories (cup sizes).

The ‘Bra Burning’ Miss America Protest – A Brief History of Women’s …

Miss America protest: 6 things you probably didn’t learn in history class

Feminists Turn Miss America 1968 Into a Protest – ThoughtCo

Mary Phelps Jacob: Inventor of the Modern Brassiere

Caresse Crosby – Wikipedia

Caresse Crosby, Brazen Inventor of the Brassiere | Mental Floss

Mary Phelps Jacob (Caresse Crosby) – Phelps Family History

The History of the Brassiere – Mary Phelps Jacob – ThoughtCo

The Crosbys: literature’s most scandalous couple – Telegraph

Caresse Crosby (born Mary Phelps Jacob) – America Comes Alive

Caresse Crosby – Inventor, Author, Poet, Journalist – Biography.com

MARY PHELPS JACOB – Biography

The History of the Brassiere – Mary Phelps Jacob – The Inventors

The First Bra Was Made of Handkerchiefs – The Atlantic

Inventor of the Month – Who is Mary Phelps Jacob? | Innovate

AMAZING LIVES: Mary Phelps Jacob – jimcofer.com

History of the Bra – Women’s Health

Brassiere Is Patented ⋆ History Channel

 


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