What is a Mae West Life Jacket?
Life jackets come in many shapes, forms, and sizes. These also come in various designs, some of which come with a rather interesting name and past. One such intriguing life-saving device is the Mae West life jacket. What exactly is a Mae West life jacket? Who is Mae West?
Mae West Life Jacket Design
This particular life jacket has to be inflated to provide the user with some life-saving buoyancy. Its design was the brainchild of someone named Peter Markus, who created this vest-style life-saving device in 1928. The design consisted of two inflatable pockets, one on each side of the wearer’s chest. This particular PFD (personal flotation device) was self-inflating and puffed up when the user pulled a cord that converted liquid carbon dioxide into gas to fill the two pockets.
This life jacket was made out of rubberized cloth and designed to fit over the user’s head. This device was then strapped around the user’s waist to ensure that it stayed in place. This life jacket soon became one of the more popular PFDs in the 1930s and onward, with some tweaks made to the overall design in the early 1930s.
Why Was it Called Mae West?
A lot of people these days tend to ask is, why is this life jacket called the Mae West? Who exactly is Mae West? This life jacket became popular in the 1930s and subsequently became the life-jacket prescribed for airmen during the Second World War due to its innovative design. During this period of time, there was a popular actress named Mae West, who was known for her risqué sense of humor and her figure.
These life jackets were named after her because of the design of the PFD. When inflated, the wearer looked like they had sizable breasts on them. This was one of the actress’ well-known features and is the main reason why this particular life-saving device was named the Mae West.
The name was given to the vest by the American airmen, who were the first to use it as part of their gear officially. The nickname quickly caught on, and this name from then on soon called the flotation device. This nickname wasn’t the only one given to such equipment that they were required to bring with them at all times. As recounted by one Royal Air Force (R.A.F.) pilot in 1941, all of them were required to carry the following:
- “Paul Pry” – a searchlight
- “bearded lady” – a searchlight with a diffused beam
- “rat trap” – balloon barrage
- “Mae West” – inflatable life jacket
These weren’t the only nicknames they used on things and people in those days. Their airfield commander earned the moniker “stationmaster” while aircraft mechanics were called erks.
The Reason for the Creation of the Mae West
The invention of this particular personal flotation device came from a need to have a flotation device that kept people’s heads above water. It also came after people found that the life jackets used in those days did keep people afloat but didn’t do so with their faces above water. As it turns out, the old cork life vests used before this life jacket was created were more of a danger than a safety device.
In 1852, it was mandated that all ships were to carry life preservers to help keep people afloat in case their ship sank. The design was flawed, to say the least since it did keep people afloat but inverted. This was discovered when the ship, the SS Vestris, sank in 1928. People wore the life preservers they were provided at that time, which was a cork life belt. It kept them afloat but not alive.
The Mae West was created by an avid boater who knew that the best way to keep people from drowning when they go overboard is to keep their heads out of the water. This is why the design of this PFD had users wearing it around their neck. It also had an inflated section at the back of the neck in subsequent designs to ensure that the head was kept above water.
The Mae West Today
While the Mae West life jacket was used mostly by people in the air force and the navy during WWII, it soon became the benchmark for subsequent inflatable life vests worn around the neck. The inventor had a patent for this particular design until the Excess Profits Tax came into play during the war. Inventor Peter Markus then canceled his patent on the design so that the government patent-free could use it from then on.
Where are these jackets these days? If you’ve ever boarded a plane and saw flight attendants demonstrating aircraft safety procedures before the flight, you will notice that they wear an inflatable life vest around their necks at one time during such a demonstration. These are the descendants of the original Mae West life jackets, still saving lives up to this day.