A series about people, products and discoveries that changed the world
Of all the Canadian inventions and innovations, there are two single items that changed the foundations of this country in the most intimate of ways. To this day, whether buried in a lingerie drawer or shoved into a hockey bag, one thing is nakedly apparent: The world would not be the same without the Wonderbra and the hard-shell jockstrap.
"It was an important innovation that came from Canada, from Montreal," says Larry Nadler, whose father, Moses "Moe" Nadler started Wonderbra in Canada, and changed the silhouette of the underwear industry around the world. "It showed that Canada can be as important as other countries in innovation and fashion and making a superior product."
The Canadian Wonderbra legacy began in 1939, after Mr. Nadler started a lingerie company in Montreal and bought the rights to the American Wonder-Bra, a brassiere design that promised a superior fit through its patented sewn construction.
But while the American patent provided a sturdy underpinning for Wonderbra (in Canada, Mr. Nadler's Wonderbra spelling had no hyphen and eventually a small "b"), it was the Dream Lift model 1300, invented in Montreal two decades later, that came to define the Wonderbra name.
Created by Quebec designer Louise Poirier at Mr. Nadler's direction in 1963, the plunging lace push-up used engineering to such great effect it would become, for women, an undergarment almost of legend. Early advertisements promoted the new Wonderbra as a feeling, an attitude, something truly modern and, as the jingles crooned, wonderful.
Wonderbra sales grew exponentially in the years that followed, making the Canadian brand a booming $27-million business by the end of the 1970s. By 1996, the 1300 had even sold its way into the Guinness Book of World Records, and inspired praise so effusive a newspaper writer in California once questioned whether the Wonderbra could save the world. (It didn't, or at least hasn't, yet.)
Meanwhile, in Guelph, Ont., the Cartledge family built their own business on another kind of intimate innovation when athlete and inventor Jack Cartledge filed a patent for the hard-cup jockstrap while working at his father's company, Guelph Elastic Hosiery, in 1927.
"It's one of our proud firsts. It's one of the essential pieces of equipment for men in sport," says Kathleen Wall, curatorial co-ordinator at the Guelph Museum, which boasts among its collection a full-size Protex jockstrap and cup, as well as a pair of miniature novelty jocks. (They were sometimes stretched around highball glasses as advertisements at sales conventions.) Ms. Wall says many who visit the museum have no idea about the cup's Canadian heritage.
"It's something you don't really talk about," she says. "It's just something you need."
With their promise of comfort, safety, security and vitality for the wearer, Protex jockstraps grew to be no small industry in Guelph, employing a force of workers in a central plant with others sewing the supporters at home. The Protex protectors were once used throughout the NHL, making Guelph known, at least in one 1978 Globe and Mail story, as "the jockstrap capital of the world" and the company's then-president, "the Jockstrap King."
At that time, the company reportedly sold 400,000 to 500,000 jockstraps worldwide a year, with prices ranging between $3.50 and $10.
Dan Cartledge, a mechanic at a Ford dealership in Fergus, Ont., says he's fascinated by his family's history and proud of it, though few know about his personal connection to privates protection.
"We were never the braggy-type people," he says.
Still, Mr. Cartledge reflects often on the contributions of his kin, sometimes during sports games, when such apparel is called into action.
"Where would we be without it?," asks Mr. Cartledge, a hockey player himself until recently. "It's not something I just sit and dream about, but you do think about it. It's a part of history."
And history it is. Through the years, both Protex and Wonderbra were bought by larger companies and grew far removed from their hometown roots. A spokeswoman for PTX Performance Products says the Protex line has been dropped. Wonderbra, which Larry Nadler says once employed 1,000 workers in Montreal, held numerous patents, and was a hub of design and innovation (he personally struck a successful task force on moulded brassiere cups), is now basically just a sales office in Canada.
"[The history] is a source of personal satisfaction, but sadly other things have happened," said Mr. Nadler, who ran the business after his father's death in 1965. "Wonderbra as a Canadian entity is gone."
Among the artifacts at Montreal's McCord museum is an original Wonderbra 1300 that belonged to Mr. Nadler's mother. It was, in its time, a kind of Canadian revolution. Enough to puff the chest – with patriotic pride, of course.