There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part One Hundred And Four

Samuel Clemens (1835 – 1910)

Better known by his nom de plume of Mark Twain, Samuel Clemens is rightly acclaimed as one of America’s finest writers. Rather like many a great man or woman, though, he had another side to his character, one lost in the mists of time, an inventive streak. His desire to improve the lot of mankind both made and lost him a fortune, ultimately forcing him to shut up his large estate in Hartford and move his family to Europe in 1891.   

Twain’s first invention, for which he received a patent in 1871 (no. 121,992), is still in use today, although not necessarily in the way he had originally envisaged it. The fashion for trousers in the 19th century was for them to be high cut, making the wearing of a belt an impractical way to define the waist and stop the garments from falling down. In 1882 a London haberdasher, Albert Thurston, made and sold the first commercially available braces. So successful were they that his business has held up to this very day.

Twain, though, found braces uncomfortable and set about developing what he described as an “Improvement in Adjustable and Detachable Straps for Garments”, something which turned out to be an elastic hook clasp. In his patent application, Twain envisaged that it would be used on “the vest, pantaloon or other garment”, any piece of clothing which required a close or snug fit. Its use never really caught on as vests, what we know as waistcoats, developed a buckle and strap to give that trimmer fit and pantaloons dropped out of fashion. The fashion for men’s trousers saw the advent of a lower cut, allowing the garment to sit on the waist and making the belt a more viable option.

In the 19th century, the corset gave the figure of a woman more shape, but they were uncomfortable and restrictive to wear. In 1889 the French designer, Herminie Cadolle, set in motion the movement to free women from the tyranny of the corset by cutting it in two, allowing the top section to support the breasts. It was not until 1914 that Mary Phelps Jacob invented and patented the bra as we would know it, deploying two silk handkerchiefs and a pink ribbon. Something was needed to ensure that the bra strap at the back remained in place and what better than Twain’s strap? It has been used ever since, but by the time the bra had established itself as an everyday piece of underwear, Twain’s patent had long since expired.

More successful in financial terms for Twain was a self-adhesive scrapbook, which he patented in 1873. As a compiler of scrapbooks, he considered the process of gluing the newspaper clipping on to a page both laborious and messy. His scrapbook consisted of leaves coated with an adhesive substance. All the user had to do was moisten the page and affix their clipping. Simple. According to the St Louis Post-Dispatch, sales earned him $50,000, a quarter of what his writings generated.

Less successful was his “Memory Builder”, a game aimed at children, which he patented in 1885. Its intention was, according to Twain, “to fill the children’s heads with dates without study”, consisting of a cribbage board adapted into a historical timeline. Although he sent prototypes to several toyshops, it never went into production.

What did for Twain’s finances, though, was his obsession with trying to perfect the Paige typesetting machine into shape. He bought exclusive rights to the machine and sank several thousand dollars into getting it to work. The infernal machine, though, constantly broke down and in a stroke of bad luck that besets many an inventor, the linotype machine, a more efficient and reliable machine, cornered the market.

I wonder, if he had not been a wonderful writer, whether Twain would have been remembered today for his role in liberating women from the corset.

If you enjoyed this, check out The Fickle Finger by Martin Fone

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