The humble, everyday coat hanger would seem to have existed unchanged forever. But in fact, its current pure form is the result of vigorous experimentation. As recently as 1897 Sears, Roebuck copywriters had to tell customers why they needed one in the first place (“Garments when hung on this device do not lose their shape as when hung on hook or nail”). Nevertheless, by then hangers existed in as many different forms as that more famous example of nineteenth-century inventive fecundity, the apple parer.
When Harris Diamant, a New York sculptor, began to run across old hangers at flea markets, he saw not just a technical but an artistic legacy. He set out to acquire as many different examples as he could—he now has 185, made between 1890 and 1930—and persuaded the owners of Manhattan’s Ricco-Maresco Gallery to mount what turned out to be an extraordinarily popular exhibition. Viewed in that setting, the hangers clearly revealed what Diamant had seen in them: some had a purity of form worthy of the Shakers; others, the wit and verve of Alexander Calder’s wire sculpture. Taken together, they were eloquent of a truth the last century understood perhaps better than our own: that art and engineering are inextricable one from the other.
We hope you enjoyed this essay.
Please support America's only magazine of the history of engineering and innovation, and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to Invention & Technology.