January 19, 2013
On Jan. 19, 1935, Coopers, Inc. introduced new fangled undergarments for men at the downtown Chicago store of Marshall Field’s, and the “boxers or briefs” arguments began.
The Y-front briefs were the latest in a long line of under apparel innovations that the company had introduced, and it had to be successful or the company would likely fail.
Founded in 1876 by Samuel T. Cooper in St. Joseph, Michigan, to supply better quality socks to the lumberjacks harvesting the rich timber forests, S.T. Cooper & Sons grew rapidly. By 1878, the company was making 2,500 pairs of socks a day. In 1897, they expanded their hosiery line with their Black Cat line of products for women, children and men of less vigorous occupations, and in 1898, the company added a line of men’s underwear.
The White Cat underwear brand, launched in 1900, became the foundation of the company; they even changed the company’s name to reflect that. In 1902, the Cooper Underwear Company built a new mill in Kenosha, Wisconsin, that still serves as the company’s headquarters, to produce union suits, the one piece full-body underwear that had become popular after its introduction in 1868.
Union suits were part of the rational clothing reform movement of the late 19th century, which though more concerned with introducing more comfortable clothing for women, especially undergarments, and typified by the move to loosen the corsets that had constrained European fashion since the 1500s, did effect men’s clothing and underwear.
Cooper Underwear introduced its Cooper union suit with the patented Kenosha Klosed Krotch in 1912, and hired Saturday Evening Post illustrator, Joseph C. Leyendecker, to create a brand image, the “Man on the Bag,” and advertising program. In 1929, responding to the rise in popularity of a new style of men’s underwear, boxer shorts, Coopers introduced a lighter one-piece suit, the “Singleton,” with short legs and a sleeveless top, and sophisticated packaging. Jacob Golomb, the founder of Everlast, introduced boxer shorts in 1925, when he sewed an elastic waistband into the trunks worn by boxers.
The Great Depression put a damper on the privately held company, and by 1934, it was forced to hire a “re-structuring” specialist. Necessity being an excellent spur for innovation, Cooper sales director Arthur Kneibler was receptive to ideas when he received a post card from a friend visiting the French Riviera; the post card featured a man wearing a bikini style swimsuit. Inspired, Kneibler directed the creation of the brief-style underwear.
On Jan. 19, 1935, Coopers offered the Jockey Y-front brief at the popular main store of Marshall Field’s in downtown Chicago; the store was sold out by noon, and within weeks it was the company’s best-selling product.
The name and basic design were derived from the “jockstrap,” because the briefs gave men more support than the looser-fitting underwear on the market. The shorts provided similar genital support to the popular jockstrap, invented by C. F. Bennett in 1874, and sold through his Bike Web Company (now called Bike Company) primarily to bicycle jockeys in Boston and New York. The name became iconic and financially saved the company. In 1971, the company changed its name to reflect the power of its core brand. Jockey International is still headquartered in Kenosha.