As recounted, clothespins first appeared in the 19th century. Before then, wet laundry was simply laid out to dry on bushes, tree limbs and other available natural platforms. The earliest clothespin patent issued in 1832 in the name of Samuel Pryor, being a bent strip of wood held together by a wooden screw, fashioned in one piece and which held the wet clothes by virtue of a gripping action. Unfortunately, as described by Anita Lahey, the devise was impractical because “… even dampness would cause the screw to swell, rendering the pin inoperable.”
The breakthrough occurred in a patent issued to David Smith in 1853. Smith, a resident of Vermont who was a prolific inventor in a number of different fields, described the defect of the then-current form of clothes as frequently being “detach[ing] from the clothes by the wind as is the case with the common pin and which is a serious evil to washerwomen.” His solution was a two-piece device, which contained two prongs with a small spring wedged in between. In the words of the patent—
“By pushing the two superior [upper] legs together the inferior [lower] ones are opened apart so that the instrument can be safely placed on the article of clothing hanging on the line. This done the pressure of the fingers is to be removed so as to permit the reaction of the spring C to throw the inferior legs together, and cause them to simply grasp the piece of clothing and the line between them.”It seems that some mass manufacture (in the terms of mid-19th century America) of clothespins had begun already in the 1840’s. Try as he could, this Kat could not find any account directly connecting Vermont with such manufacture before Smith’s invention. However, this Kat’s historian instincts suggest that already at least some of this production was taking place there, if for no other reason than the availability of lumber in the forests dotting the state. As well, that Smith chose to make an invention regarding clothespins points to the presence of at least a nascent industry as a spur for his inventive talents. In other words, the components were already being put into place for Vermont to become the center of the clothespin industry.
Moore’s invention seems to have perfectly filled the bill. As Moore described his invention, it was--
“… an improved article of manufacture, the clothes-pin described, consisting of the two clamps having the fulcrum-recess on their inner sides about midway of their length, the line-grooves in the beveled jaws, and the transverse grooves a on their outer sides in rear of the said line-grooves, and the spring composed of a single wire coiled at D, with the tangential arms E at opposite ends of the coil, with angular branches f at their outer ends, to engage the sides of the clamps and 5 prevent lateral displacement thereof, and the terminal parallel branches 9, oppositely directed to engage the grooves 011 the outer sides of the said clamps, substantially as specified.”
bad Kat pun once again) or less, walked across street and established a rival, the National Clothespin Company, whose hallmark was an improved and less expensive means for manufacture of the spring fulcrum. Allan Moore’s company overtook The United States Clothespin Company as the industry leader. By virtue of a reservoir of experienced labor, know-how, an ever-seeking inventive environment, as well as Vermont-based lumber, the state had become the Silicon Valley of wooden clothespins.
But its pre-eminence was short-lived. After World War I, European competitors, especially those from Sweden, could manufacture wooden clothespins for less. The automatic clothes dryer diminished demand in various markets. The United States Clothespin Company closed for good in the 1940’s. Later, Chinese imports became a further challenge. The National Clothespin Company held on until 2009 as the last U.S. manufacturer of wooden clothespins, although it still makes clothespins of the plastic variety. By then, Vermont as the Silicon Valley was long a thing of the past. [Still, it is worth noting that except for the Wikipedia entry for "Clothespin", which does not provide citations for some of these facts, this Kat found no corroborating on-line information, except for reports that the company had ceased manufacture of the wooden clothespin in 2009.] Be that as it may, maybe all that remains are patent citations, as late as in a 1998 filed application citing the Smith patent.This is testimony both to just how pathbreaking these 19th century patents were, but also the limits of how far even the most innovative patents can take an industry, whether or not it was the Silicon Valley of its time.
To view Rodney Dangerfield and his skit on “respect”, see here.
For the "Clothespin" steel sculpture by Claes Oldenburg in Center Square in Philadelphia, see here.
By Neil Wilkof