The Real Uplifting Story Of The Brassiere

Telegraph Herald
Byrne: Why history is fun … and sometimes false
BY ROBERT BYRNE FOR THE TH | Posted: Monday, December 12, 2011 12:00

 

As you very well know, the brassiere was invented in the early 1900s by a German with the impossibly-appropriate name of Otto Titzling. He was motivated by the plight of opera singer Swanhilda Olafson, who was so buxom she always seemed to be in danger of tipping over.

Herr Titzling neglected to patent his brainstorm, and the idea was stolen by a French fashion designer named Philipp de Brassiere. A lawsuit ensued, enlivened by models demonstrating the two designs. The verdict came down in favor of the Frenchman, whose name from then on was attached to one of the most beloved undergarments in the world. Titzling sank into poverty. In a Bette Midler song about the affair are these lyrics: “The result of this swindle is pointedly clear/ Do you buy a Titzling or do you buy a Brassiere?” She imagined the Frenchman thinking, “Oh, what joy, what bliss/ I’m gonna make a million from this!/ Every woman will wanna buy one/ I can have them made in Taiwan.”
It’s a story people wish were true, but, sadly, it isn’t.

The story was a piece of fiction written by Canadian writer Wallace Redburn for his 1972 straight-faced spoof “Bust-Up: The Uplifting Tale of the Development of the Bra.”

The bra, in fact, sometimes rudely called the over-the-shoulder-boulder-holder, was invented in 1913 by a New York socialite named Mary Phelps Jacob, whose prototype was made of two silk handkerchiefs and a pink ribbon. The device became popular during World War I when the military needed the metal used in corsets.

Before leaving the subject, let me pass along what humorist Dave Barry said was the purpose of breasts: “To make men stupid,” which I have demonstrated so far in this column.

Not that every too-good-to-be-true history is false. English plumber Thomas Crapper (1836-1910), while not the inventor of the flush toilet, made key improvements to it and received several patents.

We are all in Crapper’s debt, for example, for his invention of the floating ballcock. Tom, a distinguished-looking businessman, also made manhole covers with his company name on them, and the few that can still be seen today in Westminster Abbey are minor tourist attractions.

My favorite string of lies was written by the outrageous and hilarious H.L. Mencken (1880-1956), the Sage of Baltimore, who made up a history of the bathtub that he himself called a tissue of absurdities.
Titled “A Neglected Anniversary,” it appeared in the New York Evening Mail on Dec. 28, 1917, which he said was the 75th birthday of home bathing.

Mencken larded the piece with all sorts of goofy and delicious details, such as the supposed opposition to bathing by the medical profession. Doctors, Mencken claimed, quoting from a non-existent 1843 medical journal, felt that bathing was dangerous to health and could lead to “phthisic rheumatic fevers, inflammation of the lungs, and the whole category of zymotic diseases.” The uproar didn’t die down until 1851, when President Millard Fillmore installed a bathtub in the White House “capable of floating the largest man.”

Mencken’s article sprouted tireless legs and soon worked its way into all sorts of publications, including academic journals and encyclopedias, even after he confessed to his prank in 1926. The colorful “facts” continue to show up today, 85 years after they were revealed as a joke. Editors and readers want the story to be true, so it continues to be told.

As in many other areas of life — politics, to name one — facts and truth have little to do with belief.
With that in mind, I’m starting work on an autobiography.

This is true: Byrne is a Dubuque native and author of 24 books, including a collection of his TH columns, “Behold My Shorts.” His website is www.byrne.org and his email is bob@byrne.org.

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