Who Made That?

The mod­ern de­sign won out over many ri­vals

Reader's Digest (India) - - Contents - BY HI­LARY GREEN­BAUM & CHARLES WIL­SON

The clothes­pin.

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.

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