“On this day in 1914, the U.S. Patent Office approved patent no. 1,115,674, and the modern brassiere designed by Mary Phelps Jacob entered the mainstream.
Prior to Jacob’s invention, women’s corsets were often made of whalebone in a manner she described as “”boxlike armor.”” When she was 21, the story goes, Phelps was dressing for a dance and instead of donning her “”armor,”” she called for her maid to bring her two handkerchiefs, ribbon, pins, and a needle and thread. Her invention was an instant success—her girlfriends all took notice of her easy movement at the dance. A year later, in 1914, she secured the patent and set up a shop manufacturing bras. She ended up selling the patent to Warner Brothers Corset Company for US$1,500; the company earned US$15 million from the patent over 30 years. It was no big loss for Jacob, as her life became more exciting after leaving her business. Just like she broke out of the confines of a corset, she broke out of contemporary social conventions.
Mary Phelps Jacob (1891-1970)–also known as Polly Peabody and Caresse Crosby–was an American aristocrat descended from colonial families, a publisher, patron of the arts, actress, writer, and of course, inventor. Her personal life was constantly full of scandal and intrigue, and her many lovers included the great photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. She took the name Caresse Crosby in 1924 after a marriage to the American heir Harry Crosby. This caused quite a stir in Boston, since she was six years older than the eligible bachelor, and the relationship began when she was married to someone else, who she already had two children with.
The two left for Europe directly after the wedding and lived an extravagant and rich life in Paris. They practiced an open marriage, and took part in many scandalous bacchanals. At the annual orgiastic Incan-themed Four Arts Ball, a bare-breasted Caresse donned a turquoise wig while her husband covered himself in red ocher and wore a necklace of three dead pigeons. The morning after consisted of sticky paint, a dead pigeon stench, and a crowded bed.
Aside from the scandals, the couple also befriended and inspired many of the great writers and artists of the day. They founded the influential Black Sun Press, publishing their own poetry along with works by contemporaries such as James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound and others. The Black Sun Press was also instrumental in introducing Europeans to American writers, such as William Faulkner and Dorothy Parker.
Soon after the Great Crash of 1929, Harry shot himself in an apparent double suicide with his lover. Caresse moved to Virginia and continued her exciting life. She turned much of her energy to the peace movement and founded Women Against War after World War II, but always continued her patronage of the arts. She died of pneumonia in Rome in 1970 near an artist colony she had maintained for many years. Upon her death, TIME magazine called her the “”literary godmother to the ‘lost generation’ of expatriate writers in Paris.”””
Caption: The diagram of Mary Phelps Jacob’s brassiere that was included in her patent application.