Who Made That?
The modern design won out over many rivals
The survival of the springhinged clothespin—or cloth peg—into the modern era is an unlikely story of Darwinian selection. From 1852 to 1887, the US patent office issued 146 separate patents for clothespins. The first design that resembles the modern clothespin was patented in 1853 by David M. Smith, a prolific American inventor who lived in Vermont. Smith also invented a combination lock, a “lathe dog” (a machine part for shaping metal) and a lifting spring for matchboxes. His “spring-clamp for clothes-lines” offered an elegant model of “two levers” hinged so that‚ “the two longer legs may be moved towards each other and at the same time move the shorter ones apart.”
Smith’s design was later improved by the 1887 patent of another Vermont inventor, Solon E. Moore, whose great contribution was the “coiled fulcrum,” made from a single wire, which joined the two grooved pieces of wood at the centre of the clothespin. Moore’s version had the advantage of being both sturdy — it kept clothes securely on the line — and easy to manufacture.
Most other designs of the era, like Edmund Krelwitz’s bulky “improved clothespin” — consisting of “one continuous strip of sheet metal” that was “bent in the shape of a U” — have been lost.
If Vermont was the Silicon Valley of 19th-century clothespin technology, the early history of the device is more difficult to trace. “The British colonists would have already brought the idea over with them,” says Barbara Suit Janssen, a curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. “The earliest clothespins were just handmade, carved from wood.”
The first American patent for a clothespin dates to 1832. But inventor Samuel Pryor’s model was lost in a fire that destroyed the US patent office four years later. It wasn’t until the late 1840s that clothespins began to be mass-produced.
The first designs were generally a single piece of bifurcated wood with a nob at the top. David Smith, in his patent application for his two-piece clothespin, explained that the advan- tage of his spring clamp was that it could not “be detached from the clothes by the wind as is the case with the common pin and which is a serious evil to washerwomen.”
Today, with washing machines and dryers becoming more common, the clothespin industry is in decline in many countries. Many makers have closed shop. The clothespin survives, in part, through its usefulness in craft projects and how easily it can be converted into reindeer (photo above) and other shapes.
Janssen remembers an exhibition on the subject that she curated a decade ago: “I overheard a little boy, around seven years old, with his dad. He was looking at the collection and said, ‘Dad, what’s a clothespin?’ ”
In developing countries, anyhow, sun-drying clothes will remain the best choice and plastic clothespins in various shapes, sizes and colours should always serve us well.
Clothespins were originally made of wood.