Radioactive Corsets

Britannia and Eve
January 1 1939

Well yes, uncredited writer for the magazine Britannia and Eve, the idea of radioactive corsets really does make you blink. For new readers of this blog, it might come as a bit of a surprise, but these corsets were just another of the long list of consumer products freely available that contained –or in some cases purported to contain -radioactive materials. And for a time, albeit it quite a brief one, radioactive corsets were incredibly popular and sold in large numbers. So this post is going to take a quick delve into what they were, who sold them and why anyone could think they were possibly a good idea.

The make of the corset itself isn’t named in the piece but, based on the description and the date, it was almost certainly referring to the Radiante – a corset that first appeared in Britain in 1937 manufactured by the well-known corset company Silhouette Ltd.

Silhouette had its roots in Germany– the business collaboration between two entrepreneurial salesmen Max Lobbenberg and Emil Blumenau. Legend has it that they drew straws to decide whether to start a corset factory or a wholesale business selling laces. The corset straw won, and they founded the firm on the 18th April 1887.[1]

L&B, as it was known then, went from strength to strength entering the twentieth century by skilfully negotiating the challenges presented by World War one, inflation after the war and – really crucially – the changing fashions of the 1920s which saw a steep decline in the demand for the type of corsetry that L&B had been known for. [2] L&B showed their strength and resilience by responding to this slump by designing and manufacturing bathrobes during this period instead.

By the 1930s the situation in Germany became too dangerous for this Jewish family run business, now managed by the sons of the founders, and a decision was made to expand the business into other countries. Paris was the obvious choice initially as the designer for Silhouette, Mme Kelly Soiyard, already lived there and, in 1930, Otto Lobbenberg emigrated to the city and formed a new company called Manufacture de Corsets Silhouette. It was in Paris that the famous trademark of Silhouette was established apparently designed by an unknown local artist working in Montmartre who attended tables, earning money by sketching tourists.

 

Vogue (US) 1937

Slowly the Parisian side of the business built up and, as the family had feared, the situation in Germany progressively got worse.

On the B side of L&B Hans, the son of Emil, had already fled to England with his family in 1936 and duly incorporated Corsets Silhouette Ltd – part-owned by him and part-owned by Otto Lobbenberg. Hans, seemingly relishing the challenge of setting up a new business, went into overdrive opening factories and offices above the ground floor at Angel House on the Pentonville Road in London.

By 1938 Hans Lobbenberg, who had remained in Germany, was forced to sell the business to a competitor before fleeing to Amsterdam. Max, the founder of L&B, emigrated to London the same year but, tragically, died a few weeks after his arrival apparently due, according to the family, to a broken heart. Otto, fearing imminent French mobilisation sold the French arm of the business and emigrated to the USA by the end of 1938.

The Silhouette Radiante

Portsmouth Evening News
October 29 1937

Before he left Paris Otto had obtained the manufacturing rights for a patented radioactive corset.

Otto offered these rights to Corsets Silhouette Ltd, and it was launched in Britain as the Radiante in 1937. My research has not, yet, turned up an actual example of the Radiante but the adverts assure the purchaser that they are “fashion creations of the highest perfection”[3] and we know that they were made of Lastex, the ‘miracle’ elasticised fabric that was a popular material for swimwear and lingerie in the 1930s. In this case, the structure was, uniquely, impregnated with a substance which rendered it radioactive.[4]

A photograph of Annemarie Lobbenberg
Annemarie Lobbenberg

The actual design of the Radiante is credited to Annemarie Lobbenberg (nee Rabl) who was Hans Lobbenberg’s second wife and also the designer of the famous ‘Little X’ Girdle produced by Silhouette in the 1950s.

Unfortunately, I have yet to dig up any indication of the cost of the Radiante Silhouette primarily because Silhouette, at this time, did very little advertising of their own. Most of the primary sources I have found for the Radiante are courtesy of the shops and department stores that stocked it. But these are also fascinating for their reaction to the product.

Radio Times
21 February 1937

 

Aberdeen Press and Journal
September 8 1937

The Radiante traded on the strong interest in health and personal fitness in the 1930s and were not the only corset companies to do so. Brands like Slimtex and Vita Flex promoted their rubber girdles which were said to reduce as well.

But what Silhouette had, which was different from the others, was the extra miracle ingredient of radioactivity and this is the bit that, with our 21st century hindsight, seems to be – let us say – an unusual move for such a well-established company.

The source of the radioactivity itself is unclear, but most the usual tag line for the Radiante is “the Radiumised Corset” so it is safe to assume that, at the very least, the manufacturers wanted potential customers to believe that radium was a principal constituent.

The advertisements spell out the benefits of radioactivity for the wearers of the corset – that they “revive and rejuvenate;”[5] “cure that feeling of fatigue;”[6] and even that they are “slenderising.”[7]

It often comes as a surprise to people just how popular the idea of adding radioactivity – specifically radium – to consumer’s products was in the first half of the twentieth century.  But the claims made by Silhouette -and we have no reason to believe that they were fraudulent-are all ones that are familiar from other radioactive products.

The critical claim for Silhouette was the association of their products and the beneficial effects of spas such as Bath, Carlsbad and Gastein. By 1904 it had been discovered that many of the mineral spas around the world contained radioactivity in some form or another and this led to a huge resurgence in the idea that bathing could be beneficial to health and the popularity of spa-going.[8]

The language used to expound the benefits of the Silhouette Radiante echoes much of the marketing materials produced by spas which claimed that their waters were the answers to (amongst other illnesses) tuberculosis, cancer, rheumatism and arthritis. Based on the practice of Mild Radium Therapy, a technique that was beginning to establish itself in the medical profession especially in Germany, the idea was that a little bit of radium could be beneficial to the system by kick-starting the metabolism and stimulating the body to essentially heal itself.

And while this line of thought was incredibly popular up to the late 1920s by the 1930s, and certainly 1937 when the Silhouette was introduced, the popularity of Mild Radium Therapy and the craze for radium-based consumer products had begun to wane.  Highly publicised cases of people dying from ingestion of radium had led to concerns about the safety of radioactive products and this

is reflected in one of the adverts which stressed that the quantities involved are minute and in “such a degree [that] cannot cause any harm.”[9]

Company records for Silhouette show that, despite these concerns around radioactivity, the Radiante was an immediate success and helped turn the business from a struggling one into a massive success in a short period. I haven’t been able to find an end date for the production of the Silhouette but it seems that the product was not made later than 1939 partly due to the outbreak of World War Two which saw the raw materials required for its production limited and the company itself was ordered by the government to move their production into helping the war effort by producing utility goods and by making bras and suspender belts for the W.A.A.F., A.T.S. and the W.R.N.S.

The Radiomite Corset

It has been claimed that the Radiante was the world’s first radioactive corset but actually this isn’t the case and I just want to turn to one example that I have found that predates it by almost a decade.

This corset, lined with radioactive material, was part of a range of products offered branded by the name ‘Radiomite’. The patent for this was taken out in 1923 by Frederick Howard Rosher, one of the Directors of the Radiomite Ltd who were based in London.  The specification of the patent makes for interesting reading indicating that the invention relates to “belts, bandages, pads or the like for the treatment of rheumatism and similar ailments.”[10]

Patent No 211,679 gives us details of how Rosher’s invention improved therapeutic treatment with radioactive substances (he says in the application that he is aware that there are other products that have already been proposed that utilise belts and bandages for curative purposes) “According to this invention there is embodied in the insole or sock a radioactive material which may be in powder, granular or another form, or if desired the said material may be in the form of a paste or composition. The insole or sock, which may be otherwise formed of any suitable material is formed with one or more pockets to contain the material.”

The Radiomite corset (and the other items in the range) also promised that the benefits of radioactivity – specifically radium – would be transferred to the wearer through their products.

Radiomite claimed that their product, which would last a lifetime, would “stimulate muscles and nerve tissues, relieve pain, give vigour, and provide in a convenient and inexpensive form all the benefits offered by famous spas.”[11]

Unlike Silhouette Radiomite were not in the corset business and mostly concerned themselves with pads and insoles. Their range of products included gloves, wristbands, ankle pads, insoles and night socks and cost from 3/- all the way up to 35/- for a body belt. And it seems that the Radiomite corset was something that had a short lifespan for them as it only appeared in 1929 and the company itself was active until the late 1930s.

Britannia and Eve,
July 1 1929

 

The Tatler
January 14 1925

References
[1] Nigel Hinton, Silhouette, 2009 p16

[2] The gravity of this change of fashion for old-fashioned corset makers really can’t be underestimated. J Shepherd, specifically looking at Britain, calculated that the sales of corsets declined by 2/3 during the 1920s.J Shepherd, 1920s Britain, p50

[3] Aberdeen Press and Journal, September 8 1937, page 2

[4] Aberdeen Press and Journal, September 6 1937, page 2

[5] Bedfordshire Times, November 12 1937, page 4

[6] Eastbourne Gazette, September 22 1937, page 8[7] Aberdeen Press and Journal,  September 6 1937, page 2[8] For more information on this go to http://lucyjanesantos.com/radon-spa-jachymov/[9] Royal Leamington Spa Courier, October 15 1937, page 5[10] Patent No 211,679. Application date: February 5 1923.[11] Britannia and Eve, July 1 1929, page 185

 

 

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