Some stories don’t always make the textbooks, but history is filled with offbeat tales of people and events, fragments, and glimpses of surprising lives. The past is an alien place, filled with strange and fascinating customs. But its citizens were human. “I am with you,” the poet Walt Whitman wrote in the 1850s. Whitman thought there was no gap between past and present. This story, one in a series , aims to see whether Whitman was right.
On Nov. 3, 1914, a rebellious New York debutante then known as Mary P. Jacob was issued a patent for a revolutionary new undergarment, the “backless brassiere.”
She designed it the year before in front of a mirror using two pocket handkerchiefs, ribbons and pins. Her French maid helped.
It was a rejection of the brutal, old-fashioned corset — “a box-like armour of whalebone and pink cordage,” she recalled.
Her invention proved “delicious,” she wrote, while still pressing “down one’s chest . . . so the truth that virgins had breasts should not be suspected.”
Years later, after two wars, the deaths of two husbands, and a decade of wild living in Europe, Jacob — by then known as Caresse Crosby — claimed that she had invented the bra.
She hadn’t. But this fall her patent is a century old, and her story, which included later chapters in Washington and Virginia, is all but forgotten today.
In the annals of underclothes, bralike garments in the United States go back to the mid-1800s.
One early patent for a “breast pad and perspiration shield” was issued in 1859 to Henry S. Lesher of Brooklyn, N.Y.
Lesher’s idea was to provide support and “symmetrical rotundity,” while blocking underarm perspiration, he wrote in his patent explanation.
The contraption was all one tortuous piece.
The perspiration shields were made of rubber. The breast pads were also made of rubber, which could be blown up through a tube like an airline life vest.
“In the event of one side . . . being less developed than the other, as is frequently the case, it is only necessary to inflate the pad on the deficient side . . . to hide this defect from view,” he wrote.
If the breasts were symmetrical, the pads could be more or less inflated to the wearer’s taste.
Four years later, Luman L. Chapman of Camden, N.J., was issued a patent for an improved corset, designed to avoid “injuries to the breasts and abdomen” when it was put on or taken off.
Fabric and whalebone cups, or “breast puffs,” were an added feature, making it a proto-bra.
Chapman thought his sheet-metal front clasps were an improvement on the steel springs used in earlier corsets. Together with the breast puffs, they would ease the vice-grip of the corset and promote proper respiration.
His new garment could be “worn by all females at all times without either inconvenience or injury,” Chapman declared in his patent explanation.
Today, neither male inventor is much remembered.
But Mary Jacob, a.k.a. Caresse Crosby, has been the subject of two biographies and a fair amount of newspaper ink, although not all for her invention.
Crosby, as she was called for most of her life, became best known as the wife and sidekick of Harry Crosby, the wealthy Boston hedonist with whom she caroused across Europe in the years after World War I.
They were members of the post-war “lost generation.” Together, they drank, took opium and had affairs.
“Sell ten thousand,” Harry wired his father at one point. “We have decided to live extravagantly.”
They entertained guests in a gigantic bed in their home in France. At one party, she went bare-breasted, while he wore a necklace of dead pigeons.
They traveled and wrote poetry.
It was the “fabulous twenties,” she wrote in a 1953 memoir. “We built a gossamer bridge from war to war, as unreal as it was fragile . . . between a rejected past and an impossible future.”
They knew Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce and Pablo Picasso. They watched Charles Lindbergh land outside Paris.
Harry painted his fingernails, wore a black gardenia in a buttonhole and had the bottoms of his feet tattooed. He kept asking his lovers to commit suicide with him.
The couple roared around France in a green limousine convertible, in which everybody, their dogs included, wore goggles.
In 1927, they founded Black Sun Press and published works by Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, and Hart Crane, and themselves.
As she finished her first of book of poetry, she could not decide whether to call herself Mary Crosby, or use her nickname, Polly. “Why not a new name?” her husband asked.
They came up with Caresse. She added a new sonnet to her book that ended with “Forever to be Harry and Caresse.”
But on Dec. 10, 1929, hours after asking his wife to jump out the window of their New York hotel room together, Harry Crosby shot and killed himself and a willing 22-year-old woman he was having an affair with.
His wife was devastated but recovered and went on to further adventures, living in Washington, Greece and Italy, where she died of heart disease in 1970.
In her memoir, she recalled the evening she first wore her new bra as the dawn of her subversion.
“That night at the ball, I was so fresh and supple that in the dressing room afterward my friends came flocking around,” she wrote. “I gave them a peek and outlined the invention.”
“From then on we all wore them,” she wrote.