Inventing the bra was possibly the least interesting thing Mary Phelps Jacob did in her life.
She was called Polly Peabody during her first upper-crust marriage and Caresse Crosby during her scandalous second. She and her husband Harry Crosby personified the Lost Generation as they cavorted recklessly through Europe. After he committed suicide (and murdered his mistress), she devoted herself to business – publishing, not underwear. She had an affair with an African-American boxer and a third marriage to a football player 18 years her junior before dying in Rome at the age of 78.
Mary Phelps ‘Polly’ Jacob was descended from Puritans, but was anything but puritanical. Her ancestors included Plymouth Colony governor William Bradford and William Phelps, founder of Dorchester, Mass., and Windsor, Conn. She was also related to Robert Fulton and Gen. Walter Phelps, Union commander at the Battle of Antietam.
She was born in New Rochelle, N.Y., on April 20, 1891. Her family divided its time among New Rochelle, Manhattan and Watertown, Conn.
She grew up, she later said, ‘in a world where only good smells existed.’ If she wanted something, she usually got it.
Genesis of the Bra
But from the time she was 12 she prepared to make her debut, attending one to three balls every night and sleeping until noon every day.
One evening she was putting on a sheer gown for yet another debutante ball and noticed her corset was sticking out of the top of the low-cut bodice. She asked her maid to fetch two handkerchiefs, some pink ribbon, a needle, thread and pins. They quickly fashioned a simple bra. After the dance her friends demanded to know the secret to her risqué look. When a stranger offered her a dollar if she’d make a bra, she realized she had the makings of a business.
Her lingerie career was interrupted by her marriage the next year to another Puritan blueblood, Richard Peabody. They were married by his grandfather, Endicott Peabody, who founded the Groton School.
Polly Peabody may have started her bra business because she couldn’t rely on her husband. He had little interest in their two children, and when he wasn’t going off to war he liked to get drunk and watch buildings burn.
Home of the Bra
She started the Fashion Form Brassiere Company – your basic sweatshop -- on Washington Street in Boston. In her autobiography she admitted she only made a few hundred bras for a few department store accounts. The shop, though, turned out to be a good place for trysts with her new lover, Harry Crosby.
She met Crosby in 1920 at a party on Nantasket Beach while Peabody was drying out.
Eventually, she sold her patent for $1,500 to the Warner Brothers Corset Company in Bridgeport, Conn. The Warner brothers, Lucien and Ira, had made millions selling Coraline Health Corsets. Three-fourths of the corsets sold in America came from Bridgeport, and most came from the Warner brothers.
The company began to make the backless bra in mass quantities. It got a boost from the U.S. War Industries Board in 1917 when it asked women to stop buying corsets to free up metal for World War I. Warner Brothers made more than $15 million from the bra patent.
Later Warner Brothers became Warnaco and manufactured underwear, swimwear and other apparel. The company moved out of Bridgeport in 1996, and the enormous factory was converted into lofts.
Harry Crosby was a wealthy Boston Brahmin and World War I veteran. They had sex within two weeks of meeting and were married in 1922 after she divorced Peabody. They moved to Paris, where they spent freely, partied like mad, took drugs and lovers and started Black Sun Press.
Polly Peabody became Caresse Crosby, and she and Harry started publishing their own poetry and the early works of such Lost Generation writers as Ernest Hemingway, Archibald MacLeish, Anais Nin and James Joyce.
Harry Crosby killed his lover and committed suicide in 1928. Caresse was having an intense affair with Henry Cartier-Bresson at the time. She threw herself into the Black Sun Press after Harry’s death.
She broke it off with Cartier-Bresson and fell in love with Canada Lee, an African American boxer and actor. She followed that affair with marriage to an unemployed actor and football player 18 years younger than she, Selbert Saffold Young. They bought a plantation in Virginia because he wanted to be a farmer. He was often drunk or away from home, and Caresse ghostwrote pornography for Henry Miller.
Later she opened a modern art gallery in Washington, D.C., founded Women Against War and started an artists colony in Rome in an old castle. A film, Always Yes, Caresse, was made of a tour of the castle. You can watch a clip from it here.
Caresse Crosby died in Rome on Jan. 24, 1970. Of the bra, she once wrote,
I can't say the brassiere will ever take as great a place in history as the steamboat, but I did invent it.