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The Better Clothespin
Why do inventors keep trying to improve a technology that is not only supremely simple but-for most of us-obsolete?
Fall 2006 | Volume 22, Issue 2
In 1998 The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History mounted an exhibition titled “American Clothespins,” which consisted in part of displays of patent models of clothespins from as long ago as the 1850s. People came in droves. Those old wooden pegs inspired a huge outpouring of nostalgia. Then one day Barbara Janssen, the curator behind the exhibition, was walking through the museum and saw a boy turn to his father and ask, “What’s a clothespin, Dad?”
It’s no wonder the child had never seen one before. Nearly 60 percent of American homes are now equipped with automatic clothes dryers. It’s in the shadow of the dryer that quaint old clothespins and clothespin doll kits turn up on auction at eBay. The device has become so superfluous that Janssen herself, the leading expert on its evolution, has no use for it beyond its appeal as a collector’s item. She once purchased a pack with playful flowershaped heads at Target, but not to hang garments with. When asked if she has a clothesline, she replies, “Of course not. I use a dryer.”
Yet right now designers and inventors are working to improve the ancient household tool, and some of them are seeking patents for its latest incarnations. The clothespin, low-tech and old-fashioned though it may be, continues to capture the imagination and attention of hopeful innovators.
The earliest American patent for a clothespin, issued in March 1832, described a bent strip of hickory held together with a wooden screw. It was impractical. Rain or even dampness would cause the screw to swell, rendering the pin inoperable. It took 21 more years for an improvement to emerge that would be deemed worthy of manufacture (if briefly): the “spring-clamp for clotheslines,” invented by David M. Smith of Springfield, Vermont, in 1853, and made of two wooden “legs” hinged together by a metal spring.
In his patent letters, Smith explained his clamp with a certain stiff eloquence: “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.” The clamp’s benefits: “This instrument unlike the common wooden clothes pin in common use does not strain the clothes or injure them when it is used.” Furthermore, he triumphantly concluded, “it cannot be detached from the clothes by the wind as is the case with the common pin and which is a serious evil to washerwomen.”
This was the beginning of the end of the uncontested reign of the straight wooden clothespin, a cylindrical strip of wood with a slit up the middle. People had either carved those themselves or purchased them from traveling peddlers who had crafted them by hand. (Frequently these clothespins were given decorative knobs that served well as heads when children turned them into tiny dolls.) Smith’s invention, the earliest incarnation of the clothespin in most common use today, was to be tweaked and modified endlessly: 146 new patents were granted in the mid-nineteenth century alone, most modifying the shape or material of the spring or hinge in order to either improve performance or simplify manufacture.
It’s a low-tech design competition that continues, though at a calmer pace, more than a century and a half later. Nine clothespin patents have been issued in the United States since 1981, for odd-shaped clamps and clips designed by people from places as far-flung as North Yorkshire, England; Tiachung City, Taiwan; Castelficardo, Italy; and Victoria, Australia. They seek to avoid drawbacks of the standard Smith-style clothespin: a tendency to rust, to fail in high winds, to twist apart, to dent fragile fabrics, and to jump unpredictably off the line. Some of them resemble pliers, or boast formidable alligator-style jaws. The Yorkshire model, a plastic variation on the old-fashioned slit pin, is built with ribs that rise between increasingly broad gaps, to accommodate the varying thicknesses of garments and lines. The Taiwanese inventor of a reinforced, U-shaped clamp claims it will hold clothes firmly “in a windy or vibrating situation.”