Caresse Crosby, Brazen Inventor of the Brassiere

Caresse Crosby and her whippet around 1922, Wikimedia // Public Domain

An American who chased love, championed art, and forever changed the shape of the modern woman, Caresse Crosby is best known as the inventor of the bra. However, that's not her only uplifting accomplishment. Here's the revealing truth behind the mother of the brassiere.

Born Mary Phelps Jacobs in New Rochelle, New York, on April 20, 1891, she came from a prominent New England lineage. Her family tree boasted a Crusades-era knight, the founder of Boston's Dorchester neighborhood, a Civil War commander, famed steamboat developer Robert Fulton, and the Plymouth Colony's first governor. Growing up, Polly—as family and friends called her—wanted for nothing. As she herself described it, she was raised "in a world where only good smells existed" and "what I wanted usually came to pass." Polly maintained a headstrong drive that would serve her well through her globe-trekking travels, mercurial romances, major tragedies, and fearless exploits.

This story really begins when Polly was 19 and dressing for a debutante's ball. She slipped her delicate evening gown over the whalebone corset that was the standard undergarment for women of the time, but scowled in the mirror upon seeing how the clunky, uncomfortable device protruded from her plunging neckline and how its boning bubbled the sheer fabric. Determined, Polly called out to her maid for a pair of silk handkerchiefs, a cord, some pink ribbon, a needle, and thread. Polly bent over these seemingly random items, stitching with a narrow-eyed concentration. Yet when she was done, she'd created the foundation for the modern bra.

Polly made quite the entrance at the party. Soon, female friends were flocking to her, requesting similar structures. Word spread. When a stranger offered Polly a dollar for the garment she'd dubbed a "brassiere," she realized the product's potential. She began the process of copyrighting her design, writing to the U.S. Patent Office that her Backless Brassiere was "capable of universal fit to such an extent that...the size and shape of a single garment will be suitable for a considerable variety of different customers" and was "so efficient that it may be worn even by persons engaged in violent exercise like tennis." On November 3, 1914, the patent office approved her request, making Polly the first to patent a bra in the United States. From there she started the Fashion Form Brassiere Company in Boston, where she employed women to manufacture wireless bras.

Patent design for a "backless brassiere" by Mary Phelps Jacob, Wikimedia // Public Domain

Notably, Polly's bra is not much like the ones women favor today. Lightweight, soft and infinitely more comfortable than a waist-cinching, ribs-crushing corset, the Backless Brassiere gave little support, separating the breasts while flattening them. Their lack of metal made them a crucial alternative during World War I, when the U.S. War Industries Board declared a prohibition on corset construction so their ribbing might be used to build battleships. 

But before her invention truly took off, Polly closed shop and sold the patent to Warner Brothers Corset Company for $1500—an acquisition that earned the company $15 million over the next 30 years. Though she missed out on a grand windfall, Polly later reflected with pride on her creation, writing, "I can't say the brassiere will ever take as great a place in history as the steamboat, but I did invent it." But this eccentric entrepreneur wasn't done shaping the world just yet.

At 29, Polly was heartbroken over her failing marriage to Richard R. Peabody, a WWI veteran who'd turned away from his wife and toward the bottle. The lonely Mrs. Peabody's life took a twist right out of a romance novel when she met Harry Crosby, a passionate, handsome, and gleefully subversive suitor on Independence Day 1920. Polly Peabody and Crosby began a torrid affair that included a confession of affection in an amusement park's Tunnel of Love, much tongue-wagging from Boston blue-bloods, and a holiday to New York that inspired Polly to later reflect, "For the first time in my life, I knew myself to be a person."

After the Peabodys divorced, Richard went on to conquer his alcoholism and become a bestselling author with The Common Sense of Drinking. Polly married Crosby in September 9, 1922, moved with him to France, and refashioned herself with an all-new moniker: Caresse Crosby. The name spoke to her bawdy sense of humor, which extended to her beloved pet whippet, named Clytoris.

In Paris, the Crosbys became stars in the expatriate crowd, embracing the bohemian life with indulgences like booze, opium, wild parties, an ahead-of-their-time open marriage, and a suicide pact (more on that later). Their lavish home even included a white wall that served as a guestbook, which they invited their artist friends to mark with conveniently placed watercolor paints. There, scrawls by Salvador Dali twirled into a phoenix painted by D.H. Lawrence.

Together this "strikingly attractive, preposterously well-connected couple" got into publishing, printing not only their own poems but also works by such now-famous authors as D. H. Lawrence, Kay Boyle, Ezra Pound, Lewis Carroll, James Joyce, Hart Crane, Robert Duncan, Anaïs Nin, Charles Bukowski, and Henry Miller. Sadly, while Caresse thrived on their lush life of art and decadence, Harry Crosby soured on it. On December 10, 1929, he went through with his part of the suicide pact. However, his partner in it was not Caresse, but his latest mistress, Josephine Noyes Rotch.

Caresse survived the death of her husband and the brutal end of her second marriage by digging deeply into her work. On top of their Black Sun Press brand, she established Crosby Continental Editions, which printed works by Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, and Dorothy Parker.

The free spirit channeled her lust for life and, well, lust into 200 pages of erotica credited to Henry Miller: his Opus Pistorum. The authorship of the book is almost as controversial as its content, but Caresse apparently played a large role in writing it. In it, she channeled the experience of taking various lovers as well as an illicit imagination that refused to be confined, just as a young Polly's bust once did.

In the mid-1930s, a forty-something Caresse returned to America for a few years. In that time, she opened a gallery in Washington D.C., founded the art and literary magazine Portfolio, and managed a three-year marriage to football player Selbert Young, who was 18 years her junior. But by the 1950s, Caresse was an ex-pat once more, fostering a new artist community in the castle she'd acquired outside of Rome. She also got into politics, founding two organizations that aimed to better international diplomacy: Women Against War and Citizens of the World. But upon her death at age 78, her TIME magazine eulogy focused on her contributions to the written word, calling Caresse the "literary godmother to the 'lost generation' of expatriate writers in Paris."

Caresse Crosby (also known as Mary Phelps Jacob and Polly Peabody) passed away January 24, 1970, in Rome. To learn more about her and her vivacious life, check out her memoir The Passionate Years.

Caresse Crosby being carried around her estate outside Rome in 1964. Image credit: Getty Images.

Header image via Getty Images.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Sponsor Content: BarkBox
8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.