Mark Twain and the Bra Strap

Celebrate National Inventors' Day with the story of how Samuel Clemens' contributed to the undergarments of today.

Mimi Seyferth Feb 11, 2022 - 5 min read

Mark Twain and the Bra Strap Primary Image

Samuel L. Clemens, better known as Mark Twain. Courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Perhaps best known as one of the greatest American authors, Mark Twain was also an entrepreneur and inventor. In recognition of National Inventors' Day in the United States, we've decided to share the story behind one of his more notable inventions—the predecessor of the modern bra strap. —Editor

The famed author Samuel L. Clemens (1835–1910), better known by his pen name, Mark Twain, was also an inventor with three U.S. patents to his credit. He received the first of these patents, which is the subject of this piece, in 1871 for an “Improvement in Adjustable and Detachable Straps for Garments.” He received his second patent in 1873 for a self-adhesive scrapbook and his third in 1885 for a history game.

The Invention

Clemens designed his adjustable and detachable garment strap, which he also called a vest strap, as a device to make various garments, such as men’s vests, pantaloons, and women’s corsets, fit more snugly. Clemens prescribed that the vest strap should be made from elastic in two parts fastened by buttonholes to buttons on the garment to be tightened, and that the elastic parts, in turn, would be joined by an adjustable clasp. In his patent specifications, Clemens asserted that “[t]he advantages of such an adjustable and detachable strap are so obvious that they need no explanation.”

Clemens’s vest strap patent application became the subject of an “interference” contest when the Patent and Trademark Office identified a competing application by a Henry C. Blackwood (dates unknown) of Baltimore, Maryland. As was usual in such a contest, the Patent and Trademark Office asked each applicant to provide a preliminary statement, setting forth the dates and facts pertaining to his invention. Clemens submitted his preliminary statement in the form of a short story, stating that “[f]or four or five years I turned the idea of such a contrivance over in my mind at times, without a successful conclusion, but on the 13th of August [1871], as I lay in bed, I thought of it again, & then I said I would ease my mind and invent that strap before I got up—probably the only prophecy I ever made that was worth its face.” The competing applicants’ attorneys settled the interference in Clemens’s favor because his patent application had been filed before Blackwood’s.


Samuel L. Clemens’s 1871 patent for “Improvement in Adjustable and Detachable Straps for Garments.” Patent number 121,992. Courtesy of the United States Patent and Trademark Office

Modern Application

Ultimately, as noted in the Atlantic, Clemens’s vest-strap invention “only caught on for one snug garment, the bra.” However, the modern bra was not patented until 1914, long after Clemens’s patent for his vest strap had expired. Although the 1914 bra was “backless” and fastened with cross ties, the backs of most modern bras are secured by a two-part elastic band joined with adjustable hooks or clasps that is remarkably similar to Clemens’s vest strap.

Later in his life, having gone bankrupt backing third parties’ failed inventions, Clemens became disillusioned with the patent process. According to his biographer, when an author asked Clemens to endorse a book intended to help inventors and patentees, Clemens responded, “If your book tells how to exterminate inventors, send me nine editions. Send them by express.” Notwithstanding this animus, Clemens likely would have appreciated the irony of the similarities between modern bra straps and the vest strap of his expired patent.


  • Federico, P. J. “The Facts in the Case of Mark Twain’s Vest Strap.” Journal of the Patent Office Society 21, no. 3 (March 1939): 223–232.
  • Greenfield, Rebecca. “Celebrity Invention: Mark Twain’s Elastic-Clasp Brassiere Strap.” Atlantic, July 1, 2011.
  • ———. “Mark Twain as an Inventor.” Journal of the Patent Office Society 8, no. 2 (October 1925): 75–79.
  • Paine, Albert Bigelow. Mark Twain: A Biography. 4 vols. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1912.
  • “Patent Files Hold Mark Twain Story.” New York Times, March 12, 1939.

Mimi Seyferth is an attorney who lives outside Washington, D.C. She stumbled upon the story of Mark Twain’s vest strap while researching her article about the development of the zipper, also included in the Winter 2021 issue of PieceWork.

This article first appeared in PieceWork Winter 2021.