Mark Twain’s Patented Inventions for Bra Straps and Other Everyday Items

Twain Brastrap

Much has been made of Mark Twain’s finan­cial problems—the impru­dent invest­ments and poor man­age­ment skills that forced him to shut­ter his large Hart­ford estate and move his fam­i­ly to Europe in 1891. An ear­ly adopter of the type­writer and long an enthu­si­ast of new sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy, Twain lost the bulk of his for­tune by invest­ing huge sums—roughly eight mil­lion dol­lars total in today’s money—on a type­set­ting machine, buy­ing the rights to the appa­ra­tus out­right in 1889. The ven­ture bank­rupt­ed him. The machine was over­com­pli­cat­ed and fre­quent­ly broke down, and “before it could be made to work con­sis­tent­ly,” writes the Uni­ver­si­ty of Virginia’s Mark Twain library, “the Lino­type machine swept the mar­ket [Twain] had hoped to cor­ner.”

Twain’s seem­ing­ly blind enthu­si­asm for the ill-fat­ed machine makes him seem like a bun­gler in prac­ti­cal mat­ters. But that impres­sion should be tem­pered by the acknowl­edge­ment that Twain was not only an enthu­si­ast of tech­nol­o­gy, but also a can­ny inven­tor who patent­ed a few tech­nolo­gies, one of which is still high­ly in use today and, indeed, shows no signs of going any­where. I refer to the ubiq­ui­tous elas­tic hook clasp at the back of near­ly every bra, an inven­tion Twain patent­ed in 1871 under his giv­en name Samuel L. Clemens. (View the orig­i­nal patent here.) You can see the dia­gram for his inven­tion above. Call­ing it an “Improve­ment in Adjustable and Detach­able Straps for Gar­ments,” Twain made no men­tion of ladies’ under­gar­ments in his patent appli­ca­tion, refer­ring instead to “the vest, pan­taloons, or oth­er gar­ment upon which my strap is to be used.”

Twain Scrapbook

The device, writes the US Patent and Trade­mark Office, “was not only used for shirts, but under­pants and women’s corsets as well. His pur­pose was to do away with sus­penders, which he con­sid­ered uncom­fort­able.” (At the time, belts served a most­ly dec­o­ra­tive func­tion.) Twain’s inven­tions tend­ed to solve prob­lems he encoun­tered in his dai­ly life, and his next patent was for a hob­by­ist set of which he him­self was a mem­ber. After the soon-to-be bra strap, Twain devised a method of improve­ment in scrap­book­ing, an avid pur­suit of his, in 1873.

Pre­vi­ous­ly, scrap­books were assem­bled by hand-glu­ing each item, which Twain seemed to con­sid­er an over­ly labo­ri­ous and messy process. His inven­tion—writes The Atlantic in part of a series they call “Patents of the Rich and Famous”—involved “two pos­si­ble self-adhe­sive sys­tems,” sim­i­lar to self-seal­ing envelopes, in which, as his patent states, “the sur­faces of the leaves where­of are coat­ed with a suit­able adhe­sive sub­stance cov­er­ing the whole or parts of the entire sur­face.” (See the less-than-clear dia­gram for the inven­tion above.) The scrap­book­ing device proved “very pop­u­lar,” writes the US Patent Office, “and sold over 25,000 copies.”


Twain obtained his final patent in 1885 for a “Game Appa­ra­tus” that he called the “Mem­o­ry-Builder” (see it above). The object of the game was pri­mar­i­ly edu­ca­tion­al, help­ing, as he wrote, to “fill the children’s heads with dates with­out study.” As we report­ed in a pre­vi­ous post, “Twain worked out a way to play it on a crib­bage board con­vert­ed into a his­tor­i­cal time­line.” Unlike his first two inven­tions, the game met with no com­mer­cial suc­cess. “Twain sent a few pro­to­types to toy stores in 1891,” writes Rebec­ca Onion at Slate, “but there wasn’t very much inter­est, so the game nev­er went into pro­duc­tion.” Nonethe­less, we still have Twain to thank, or to damn, for the bra strap, an inven­tion of no small impor­tance.

Twain him­self seems to have had some con­tra­dic­to­ry atti­tudes about his role as an inven­tor, and of the sin­gu­lar recog­ni­tion grant­ed to indi­vid­u­als through patent law. Per­haps unsur­pris­ing­ly, the US Patent Office claims that Twain “believed strong­ly in the val­ue of the patent sys­tem” and cites a pas­sage from A Con­necti­cut Yan­kee in King Arthur’s Court in sup­port. But in a let­ter Twain wrote to Helen Keller in 1903, he expressed a very dif­fer­ent view. “It takes a thou­sand men to invent a tele­graph, or a steam engine, or a phono­graph, or a tele­phone or any oth­er impor­tant thing,” Twain wrote, “and the last man gets the cred­it and we for­get the oth­ers. He added his lit­tle mite—that is all he did. These object lessons should teach us that nine­ty-nine parts of all things that pro­ceed from the intel­lect are pla­gia­risms, pure and sim­ple.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Mark Twain Wrote the First Book Ever Writ­ten With a Type­writer

Play Mark Twain’s “Mem­o­ry-Builder,” His Game for Remem­ber­ing His­tor­i­cal Facts & Dates

Mark Twain & Helen Keller’s Spe­cial Friend­ship: He Treat­ed Me Not as a Freak, But as a Per­son Deal­ing with Great Dif­fi­cul­ties

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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