Mountains out of molehills

I must, I must...

The History of the Human Body course has been a whirlwind tour of the way attitudes to the body have changed down the centuries, and I’ve enjoyed finding out about the treasures of the Wellcome Collection in the process.

Our coursework was to find and research a piece in the collection, on the theme of ‘Making the Body Beautiful’. At first I despaired of finding anything that really spoke to me. There was just so much to look at and think about – how would I ever choose?

Serendipity came to my rescue. I took a day off work and sat down in the library with a pile of books. Naturally, the first thing that struck my eye was the book left behind on the desk by someone else. ‘The History of the Breast‘ sounded interesting. I picked it up and began to flick through.

Which is how I came across The Princess Bust Developer and Bust Cream (see below), the irresistible focus of my course essay and presentation. This scary-looking device, resembling a metal sink plunger, promised to feed the ‘starved and underdeveloped tissues’ of the late-19th century bust, restoring all to health and beauty. So that’s what they did before silicone.

The essay itself is posted below, for those who really want to know how it’s possible to link a  quack device for breast enlargement to the American Civil War…

The Princess Bust Developer, 1897

Mountains out of Molehills: a scientific help to nature.
Anna Sayburn
1 March 2010

In this essay, I wish to explore how changing ideas of health, science, nature and beauty combined to produce the Princess Bust Developer, a late-19th century device for enlarging the breasts. The developer, sold as ‘a scientific help to nature,’ prefigures the 20th century emergence of cosmetic surgery to permanantly enlarge the breasts using silicone implants.

The ideal shape of the woman in the West has changed with fashion, notably since the adoption of tight-fitting clothing in the 14th century. Before buttons, clothes were necessarily loose-fitting, in order to fit over the head. Buttons allowed for clothes to be closely fitted to the body, making body contours visible even while the woman was fully-clothed.[1]

It was no coincidence that the boned corset arrived soon afterwards, constraining and shaping those contours. And so the moulding of the female body took off in earnest.

Yalom, writing in A History of the Breast, states: ‘Ever since the late Middle Ages, when the corset was invented, fashion has profited from a continual progression of undergarments that correspond to changing visions of the ideal female form. Attempts to mold the body, to cover it up, squeeze it, pad it, shape or ‘train’ or even mutilate it, are by now writ so deep in the collective unconscious that it is hard to speak of a ‘natural’ body.'[2]

Yet corsets could only do so much. They could thrust the breasts up, or squash them down, push them together or hold them apart. Padding could give an outward impression of size, but had to be discarded when disrobing for bath or bed.

Corsets couldn’t make breasts grow or shrink, although there was no shortage of attempts to sell women potions and pills that could do just that.

I wish to focus on one of these attempts, an advertisement in the North American mail order catalogue of Sears, Roebuck & Co., from 1897. It introduces The Princess Bust Developer and Bust Cream or Food, a complicated 3-step programme for increasing breast size.[3]

The advertisement itself struck me as unusual because, in contrast to most modern advertising, it doesn’t feature an idealised image of a woman with perfect breasts. Instead, it features a line drawing of the system itself, which resembles a metal sink plunger.

The decision to feature an alarming contraption, as opposed to the promised outcome, is surprising to modern eyes. To understand this, I looked at the history of the Sears catalogue.[4] It was first distributed only five years prior to this particular advertisement, in 1894. The company originally focused on wrist watches and jewelry. But with the Western movement of settlers and the rise of the railroads, the market for mail-order goods developed fast.

Sears prided itself on providing value for money, providing everything the self-respecting pioneer housewife could need. By 1897, it offered goods including ‘sewing machines, sporting goods, musical instruments, saddles, firearms, buggies, bicycles, baby carriages, and men’s and children’s clothing.’ The text was mostly written by the company founder, Richard Sears.

So this was a domestic publication, which the whole family might read. Images of naked breasts, or even outlines of a clothed woman showing an idealised bosom, might be inappropriate in this context.

I reproduce some extracts from the advertisement here (the italics are mine):

‘The Princess Bust Developer is a new scientific help to nature. It is designed to build up and fill out shrunken and underdeveloped tissues, form a rounded, plump, perfectly developed bust, producing a beautiful figure.’

The juxtaposition of science and nature is telling, in an era where science and medicine are in the ascendant. During the 19th century, Darwin published the theory of evolution; Pasteur and Lister discovered the link between bacteria and disease, and more complex surgery became possible with the development of antisepsis and anesthesia.

The advertisement frames small breasts in terms of a medical problem, speaking of ‘shrunken and underdeveloped tissues.’ Cells and tissues became better understood with the development of higher-quality microscopes.[5] The advertisement uses terminology from the latest scientific discoveries.

Yet it’s clear that the real aim of the product is not so much health, as aesthetics, ‘a beautiful figure’. As the advertisement tells us, rounded breasts are a woman’s ‘greatest charm’:

‘If nature has not favored you with that greatest charm, a symmetrically rounded bust, full and perfect, send for the Princess Bust Developer.’ Most women have one breast slightly larger than another, yet in an era where there was little opportunity to look at women’s naked bodies, this would not be obvious. Was the requirement for perfect symmetry added in order to send women running in anguish to the mirror, then back to the catalogue to remedy the defect?

The advertisement makes much of the scientific basis of the system. This is how it describes the use of the metal funnel, which is the ‘breast developer’:

‘The developer gives the right exercise to the muscles of the bust, compels a free and normal circulation of the blood through the capillaries, glands and tissues of the flabby, undeveloped parts, these parts are soon restored to a healthy condition, they fill out, become round, firm and beautiful.’

Capillaries, glands and tissues are not everyday words used by 19th century women. But the tactic is familiar to us today; Sears is trying to blind his customers with science. This gives a medical authority to the judgement of the ‘flabby, undeveloped’ breasts, which are to become not just healthy, but beautiful, after treatment.

What of the magic lotion that comes with the contraption?

‘The bust cream or food is applied as a massage. It is a delightful cream preparation, put up by an eminant French chemist, and forms just the right food required for the starved skin and wasted tissues.’

This is interesting. Firstly, the cream is ‘delightful’ and to be massaged onto the breasts. It is carefully prepared, not just by any old American chemist, but a French chemist. I think that’s significant, and I think it’s about sex. Paris in the late 19th century was at the hight of the Belle Epoque, and the artistic centre of the world. The image it sold abroad was of voluptuous women, dancing girls, nightclubs, curvy Art Nouveau style and shocking bohemianism. The very opposite, in fact, of the poor, starved, wasted tissues of the flat-chested American woman.

But why was this contraption needed at this particular point in history? Ideal images of women tend to follow social trends. What was happening in late 19th century America that could have led to such anxiety about undeveloped breasts?

Yalom observed in 1997 that: ‘If the prominent breast bears some relationship to national policies, Americans are probably reaping the dubious benefits of their conservative shift toward the right… It may be that the current emphasis on breasts is an unconscious attempt to resuscitate the fifties’ nonworking, maternal bosom…'[2]

There are plenty of reasons why late 19th century society might also have a longing for a comforting maternal bosom.

Firstly, the American Civil War (1862 to 1865) had been deeply traumatic, splitting families and causing enormous suffering. The war also prompted great and speedy social change. It ended, of course, with the emancipation of the slaves. The whole economic and social model of the southern states of America was brought to an abrupt end.

The emancipation of the slaves did not go unnoticed by another section of society that felt itself in need of liberation. Women, as so often happens during wartime, had a taste of liberty. They had served as nurses in the Civil War; now they wanted to train as doctors, too.[6] Some even pretended to be men in order to do so.[7]

Women’s education became an established fact by the end of the 19th century in the USA. Women-only colleges had sprung up across the country, firstly to train teachers. But there were moves into other professional fields, including medicine and the law.[8]

Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to graduate as a doctor in the US, set up the Women’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary in 1868. She’d struggled all her life for the right to work as a doctor. Things changed fast during her lifetime; in 1899 the Women’s Medical College was finally absorbed into Cornell University, on the grounds that there was no need for female medical students to be educated separately from men.[9]

These pioneers were a minority, and an elite minority. Yet change was in the air, and nowhere more clearly seen than in women’s dress. Women who’d ploughed the fields while men were away fighting had no use for corsets or burdensome long skirts.

The Rational Dress movement is often viewed as one of the eccentric wings of 19th century social change, along with vegetarianism and nudist colonies. But the legacy of that movement can’t be denied. Corsets had defined women’s figures from the 14th century. Their banishment for the 20th century marks a definitive shift.

In a report of an 1894 Rational Dress Movement symposium, I found this interesting description: ‘I much desired to see… the dress exhibit of the Physical Culture and Correct Dress Society of Chicago. On the proportions of the Venus di Milo, were shown a working dress with apron, a street suit, a reception gown and several evening dresses – all these designs to emphasise the beauty of the woman’s form when unbound by the corset.’ [10]

The writer goes on to talk of the unnatural proportions of the modern woman, constrained by corsetery, and compared them unfavourably to the classical ideal of the Venus di Milo, with her ‘gentle curve’ from the base of the breasts. I’m fascinated by the way a movement set up to free women from impractical dress can divert itself into setting out the ‘correct’ proportions for a woman’s body on aesthetic grounds. This extract demonstrates an unspoken concern that women’s figures might be less beautiful, without their foundation of corsetry. Perhaps this is another anxiety being addressed by the Princess Bust Developer.

I surmise that generalised anxiety about societal change, a radical change in the way women dress, along with changing gender roles, can all be seen as changes that led to the Princess Bust Developer.

Of course, attempts to mould the female form didn’t end there. Cosmetic surgery was quick to offer women bigger breasts through the implantation of bags of silicone below the skin. By 1974, plastic surgeons writing in the British Medical Journal opine that: ‘The serious medical practitioner can no longer doubt the justification for cosmetic surgery.'[11]

Of mammoplasty, they say: ‘The importance of the attractive breast cannot be disputed…The woman who has little breast tissue and who feels inadequate can… receive help by augmentation of the breasts.’ They don’t discuss why she might have been made to feel inadequate.

By contrast, the Princess Breast Developer advertisement in the Sears catalogue looks like a quaint reminder of a gentler age. The 20th century changes that led us to advertisements encouraging women to submit their bodies to the surgeon’s knife, in order to make themselves more happy and confident, were still to come.

1: Ian Mortimer: A Time Travellers’ Guide to the Medieval England. Vintage, 2009.
2: Marilyn Yalom, A history of the breast. Knopf, 1997
3: Sears, Roebuck & Co. General catalogue, 1897, reproduced in Yalom, above.
4: Sears Archives, available online at
5: National Cancer Institute, Cancer: Invention of the Microscope. Available online at
6: Leah J Dickstein, Overview of Women Physicians in the United States, chapter in Women in Medical Education, an anthology of experience. State University of New York Press, 1997.
7: Justin D White, Dr Mary Walker, in Three 19th Century Women Doctors, Hoffman Press, 2007
8: Womens’ Colleges Association, The Rise of Women’s Colleges. Available online at
9: Mary K LeClair, Elizabeth Blackwell, in Three 19th Century Women Doctors, Hoffman Press, 2007
10:Report of the Feb 1894 Rational Dress Movement symposium, by Mrs Frances Russell, chairwoman. Available online at
11: C. E. Horton, J. E. Adamson, R. A. Mladick, J. H. Carraway. Aspects of plastic surgery: Cosmetic Surgery. British Medical Journal, 1974, 2, 566-569

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