A Life Most Interesting
This is a series about female inventors and so today we are discussing a female inventor. However, her invention is but a very small part of her story, one event pocketed in a life full of many. Born to a founding family in New England and married into yet another, one would think her life would have been planned out and followed a clear path like those of her peers and ancestors. For the girl named Mary, nicknamed Polly who would become Carese, life was anything but ordinary.
At the turn of the century, the life of a daughter of one of the most prominent members of New England society was rather laid out and quite clear. Rules of etiquette were followed and every event had them. Actual wealth was not the sole determining factor for this level of society and Mary Phelps Jacob had a mother and father with the ancestry that garnered them admittance. One of her maternal grandfathers seven generations earlier had founded the town of Dorchester, England and another had commanded troops at the Battle of Antietam for the Union Army. One her father’s side she was related to the first governor of Plymouth Colony and the inventor of the steamboat.
She gave herself the nickname “Polly” and had the typical privileged childhood of private schools with private tutors and lessons for such things as dancing and horseback riding. She herself described it as “a world where only good smells existed. What I wanted usually came to pass.” Later biographer Geoffry Wolff would describe Polly’s childhood as one in which she “lived her life in dreams.”
Cotillion dances were a mandatory thing for young women of the time and social standing. Young women would be escorted by a male peer and presented at the opening of the ball, wearing the finest of evening attire. Ball gowns at the time were accompanied by one wearing an undergarment called a corset. The corset was an invention of Catherine de Medicis, the very same woman who upon her marriage to King Henri II of France had packed a recipe for frozen milk which was the subject of our discussion this past Tuesday – the frozen delight we now call ice cream.
The French Queen Catherine had a ban on what was termed “thick waists” at the French court in the 1550’s and so the corset was developed to squeeze a woman’s waist to a size deemed acceptable. The corset was a garment made of lace and stave, the stave being whalebone and later metal. The garment was laced tightly and the excess skin would then be pushed either upward to the chest or lower to the hips. For over three hundred and fifty years, the corset was the undergarment worn by many women with great pain and. In some cases, illness and death.
In 1875 Susan Taylor Converse created an undergarment for women known as the “Union Under-Flannel”. Made from woolen fabric, this undergarment was more utilitarian with no lace, eyelets, laces, or pulleys. It never gained popularity although George Phelps and George frost were awarded a patent for the design.
A French seamstress in 1889 divided the corset into two pieces. Called the “Well-Being” or “Bien-être”, the top section was much like the bikini tops of today; the lower half was separate and covered the waist and derriere areas only. Herminie Cadolle kept her design rather secretive and it was made only for her clientele. Four years later Marie Tucek developed the first brassiere which resembled those of modern times with pockets for the breasts and hook and eye closures. Tucek did not market her product very well, however.
It was in the midst of such changes that Polly prepared for a cotillion one evening. Women’s fashions had drastically changed from those of her Puritan ancestors and sheet evening gowns were the fashion for Polly’s cotillion in 1910. The problem was that the staves in her corset stuck out above the neckline and could be seen under the fabric. Polly ordered her maid to find her two matching handkerchiefs and some ribbon and she quickly stitched up her own chest pockets to wear as an undergarment. The purpose of these cotillions was to prepare young people for future social engagements but on this night, the young ladies were more interested in Polly’s design than in dancing. Thus it was that Mary Phelps Jacobs, the young New England socialite that would four years later be presented to the King of England at a garden party, invented the modern-day bra. On November 3, 1914 Polly received a patent for her “Backless Brassiere”, the first to officially use the name brassiere which is the French word for “upper arm”.
By 1914, though, Polly was almost a married woman and in 1915 she married Richard Peabody. In 1920, after giving birth to a son and a daughter, she filed paperwork with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to establish her own business operating without monies from her husband, whose family was among the wealthiest in New England. Polly formed the Fashion Form Brassiere Company which was located in Boston and hired two women to do her sewing.
She sold her company, divorced her husband, married Harry Crosby and they moved to Paris. We’ve already discussed some of their life in Paris in an earlier series. You see, Polly Crosby would change her name to Carese Crosby and become hostess to the infamous “Lost Generation”, that eclectic group of artists and ex-patriots that included writers F. Scott Fitzgerald, T. S. Eliot, William Faulkner, James Joyce, Isadora Duncan, John Steinbeck, Henry Miller and composers Sergei Prokofiev, Paul Hindemith, George Gershwin, and Aaron Copeland.
The life of the nineteen-year-old modern-day bra’s inventor from New England would go on to include world travels, moving back to the states, a third and much younger husband, and eventually moving to Italy where she died while designing yet another artist colony at the age of seventy-nine. Mary Phelps Jacobs would become Carese Crosby and always lived life on her own terms. Much like her decision that fateful night of her cotillion in 1910, she approached life head on. She would later help found the political action group Women against War in the United States after the end of World War Ii as well, proving that she was much more that her schooling for dancing and hostessing might have implied. In her own words, Polly/Carese wrote a fitting epitaph: “I can’t say the brassiere will ever take as great a place in history as the steamboat, but I did invent it.”