The Better Clothespin
Why do inventors keep trying to improve a technology that is not only supremely simple but-for most of us-obsolete?
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.”
Few of these have made it past their patent papers and into production. But the most recent new “clothes-peg” (the common term for clothespin in Europe), a dual-plastic model that comes in pretty pastel colors, was patented on January 18, 2005. It is touted by its creator, the Zebra Company of Lyon, France, as the first clothespin made to “take care” of clothing, treating it with kindness and respect. It’s now being sold at WalMart, Target, and Bed Bath & Beyond and in Europe and Canada. Xavier Gibert, one of three partners at Zebra, says his product’s pleasing appearance and soft texture make it “a little less boring to hang out clothes.” Another, a teardrop-shaped radical departure from the standard, molded from a single piece of pliable plastic and called the Clip ’n Stay, was named one of the top 10 designs of 1999 by Time magazine and has entered the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. And some 66 million “Hurricane Grip” pins are made each year by Technical Moulded Systems Limited in Staffordshire, England. They were created by Ivor Langford in the late 1990s, because metal springs often rust in rainy England and because 300 Britons a year are hospitalized after being struck by flying pegs.
In 2005 Oliver Mccarthy, a student at the School of Engineering and Design at Brunel University in London, England, earned a small dose of buzz as the inventor of a “weather-predicting” clothespin, which uses electrical signals to forecast inclement weather and locks itself shut and becomes unusable if it feels a rain shower coming on. “I wanted to take a fresh look at something that we all use regularly,” McCarthy says. “So often I’d hang washing out, only to take it in again five minutes later, absolutely soaked.”
McCarthy’s “fresh look” explanation is telling. The clothespin, its many incarnations notwithstanding, has remained till recently so plain, so simple, and so little changed that it continues to attract designers by its very ordinariness. It is a prime target for face-lifts in a world where even simple functional tools are increasingly expected not just to work but to delight us as well.
“The world is more marketing aware,” says Paul Turnock, the director of industrial design and product design at Brunel. “All products, however humble, are subject to lifestyle scrutiny now, and everything requires added value to sell. This can be functional as well as aesthetic as well as better to use.”
Style may be new in clothespins, but even functionality isn’t that old. Pioneer women in North America—and Europeans as late as the mid-nineteenth century—routinely laid clothing over bushes and hedgerows to dry. But drying laundry in the bushes could be less than pleasant. Never mind the leaf bits and other debris that might cling to the clean fabric. In one incident recounted in a Canadian history magazine, a young woman was cornered by a rattlesnake while laying her laundry on bushes. Her mother found her “pale, motionless… . The sweat rolled down her brow, and her hands … clenched convulsively.”
At some point, in what may have been an innovation brought home by fishermen who had hung their washing in rigging while out at sea, people began to put up ropes, often propped up by wooden stakes, to hang wet clothes from. Shortly thereafter they began to fashion wooden clips, and the peddlers of the day saw their market opportunity. Smith’s clothespin and the manufacturing process that came with it sprang up precisely when a host of household tools and other objects were shifting from being handmade in small quantities to being manufactured in bulk. Plainfield, Vermont, became home to the National Clothespin Factory; Richwood, Virginia, according to a speech made by Sen. Robert Byrd in 2004, once boasted the world’s largest clothespin operation. But not until after World War II did the spring clothespin dominate the straight wooden one.
By the late 1950s the Penley Corporation, founded in 1923 by three brothers in the logging business, was turning out 120 spring clothespins a minute. Richard Penley, the grandson of one of the company’s founders and now its president, says the clothespin has always been surprisingly difficult to make. “The disadvantage of working with wood is that you can cut a hundred boards of a particular log and every one of them has a different grain structure. When you cut it into small pieces and dry it, you have a great deal of variation from one piece to the next.”
By 1970 Penley was one of just four companies still making clothespins in the United States; the others had either closed or begun importing. In 2001 Penley, too, shut down its clothespin operation and turned to Chinese suppliers. That left the National Clothespin Company in Montpelier, Vermont, the only manufacturer in the country; it gave up the following year. Wooden clothespins are now assembled exclusively in China. Rising manufacturing and labor costs, and dryers, are not the whole story. “Disposable diapers probably did as much damage to the industry as anything else,” Penley says. “Prior to the invention of a diaper you could throw away, families were washing diapers all the time.”
The clothespin has not just disappeared from North American factories. It has also quite literally begun to be driven from people’s backyards. Though there is some movement to promote line drying as environmentally friendly, an opposing trend exists. According to the pro-clothesline Web site of Project Laundry List (www.laundrylist.org), operated by Alexander Lee of New Hampshire, nearly all the 35,000 homeowners’ associations in California prohibit the use of clotheslines, which they consider unsightly. The site maintains a list of clothesline-banning communities across the United States. On his Web site, Lee urges the “victims” of such “lunacy” to rise up against prohibition. “My point is to educate people about how much energy gets used by electric clothes dryers. Plus, your clothes will last longer if you avoid dryers altogether.”
Meanwhile, the man who six years ago designed the first clothespin to radically deviate from the three-piece Smith model—the pin that was hailed by Time and embraced by MOMA—uses his clip all the time, but not to dry laundry. “I think it’s outlawed in my hometown,” says Lou Henry, of line drying in Westchester County, New York. “I use it to hold a bag of potato chips closed.”
Henry works for A2, Inc. (formerly Ancona 2), in Manhattan, where he created the Clip ’n Stay clothespin in 1999 for the firm’s client Ekco Housewares Co., an Illinois company that had just entered the laundry industry. Henry and his colleagues persuaded their client that a snazzy new clothespin would lend its move into this new market some real punch. “We found that clothespins were the largest volume of laundry products sold by unit,” Henry says. They also found that the main differentiations between clothespin brands were whether they came in packs of 12 or 24 or 50 and whether they were made of wood or plastic. There was room for a little creativity.
“My first goal was to make something that was nothing like any clothespin out there. I wanted to make it look cooler, make it function better, and make it cheaper.” What he came up with, inspired in part by a previous effort to redesign salad tongs, was a teardrop-shaped clothespin made of a single piece of polypropylene that snapped together over a plastic hinge. A squeeze on the sides would cause the mouth at the base of the teardrop to open. It would close up again when the pressure was relaxed. It took a year of trial and error to find a plastic mixture that could easily be opened by an elderly woman with arthritis, for example, while retaining a firm grip. The final product was given a translucent look and was dyed in decorator colors, such as soft blue, orange, and green.
The result was a clothespin that looked high-end but was easier to manufacture and thus cheaper to make than the three-piece standard. Henry calls it the “better mousetrap” of his career. “It’s quite a feat when the design is so simple that it makes other designers pull their hair out that they didn’t think of it first.”
When the ones he’s using on his chip bags wear out, however, Henry won’t be able to replace them. His clothespin was on the market only briefly, until Ekco became part of a larger company that had little interest in its laundry division. “It had just been released,” says Henry. “No one knew it was around in this corporate shuffle.”
Prior to Henry’s breakthrough, the most significant change to the hinged, two-legged clothes-pin was not in form but in material. Before World War II every clothespin in the United States was made of wood, usually a hardwood such as birch, beech, or poplar, abundantly available and resistant to splitting. Then one summer day in 1944, the story goes, Mario Maccaferri, an Italian immigrant and the inventor of the plastic reed for woodwinds, was sent out by his wife to purchase clothespins. Their local shopkeeper had none in stock; Maccaferri went to his reed plant and returned home that evening with six models of plastic clothespins. He went into production immediately with a clothespin that became such a hit retailers would take them away by the barrelful.
Nowadays plastic clothespins are available in endless variations, including a new one that has gone into widespread production, Zebra’s “sweet clip,” made with both hard and soft plastics, using a dual-injection manufacturing process. The hard plastic is in the long handles, while two softer cushions sit where the pin grips the clothes. Zebra developed a dual-plastic toothbrush 15 years ago, applied the principle to clothespins in Europe in the late 1990s, obtained a worldwide patent, and captured 8 percent of the global clothespin market. The pin is sold in North America under the name Urbana.
“We love to target stupid products,” says Xavier Gibert of Zebra. “When you walk into a megastore, most of the time you see stupid products, boring products. You buy them because you need them. We target basic products to make them come alive, able to talk to people.” And what does the Urbana clothespin say? Something along the lines of “I’ll be gentle.”
“The key of this peg is not to be able to hold very heavy clothes,” says Gibert. “It’s much more dedicated to sensitive clothes.” Response to the pin has been enthusiastic. “People were attracted by the design. They said, ‘Wow, we love the shape.’”
The Zebra clothespin may struggle to survive in North America, however. Kirk Sabo, vice president of marketing for its distributor, Varimpo Products, says its markup is dangerously high. “When you can get 100 clothespins for $2.49,” he asks, “is there room for 10 for $4.99? Three years ago there weren’t nonslip sexy clothes-pegs, and now there are, so something’s happening, but how far will it go? The trick will be to drive down manufacturing costs so it can be more competitive.”
The pin has sold robustly enough to hang on to shelf space even at WalMart. And it has already inspired knockoffs. Sabo says at least six violations of the patent exist, and they are being challenged.
If you ask Penley, though, the man who grew up in the clothespin business, the old-fashioned wooden one is the design that will endure. “People have been inventing clothespins for a couple of hundred years,” he says. “But the basic spring clothespin works, and it’s incredibly cheap. Nobody’s been able to improve upon it to the point that it’s a better product.”
At least not yet.
Anita Lahey is a freelance writer in Ottawa, Ontario.