Wednesday, January 8, 2020

The History of the Humble Clothespin

by Kathleen L. Maher



Who remembers grabbing a handful of wooden clothespins from their mom's or grandmother's apron, maybe even directly from the clothesline, and making an
afternoon of fun? So many possibilities beckoned in the almost-human form of these common wooden pegs. With some imagination, a whole army of soldiers could be made--a little red and blue paint, hats made of black yarn pompoms, and Hoozah, you'd have a proper British infantry. Or with a flourish of scrap material and ribbon, a dress for a miniature wooden lady. Of course when mother went looking for her clothespins, the party scattered as you scrambled to return the purloined laundry staples to their rightful place. 

A pleasant and seemingly ever-present part of my earliest memories, clothespins summon moments of helping mom and sisters hang the wash, or evoke visions of my grandmother's kitchen towels drying on her square aluminum backyard laundry pole. They are inextricably linked in my mind and heart to simpler times, like the aroma of cinnamon and coffee on a Sunday morning, or the refrain of the music of my childhood.




A bit of sleuthing led me to discover their likely origins. The fascinating fact is that these pins have been around since at least the 1700’s in their simplest

form, the one-piece wooden pin with two prongs and a knob at the top, created by the Shaker community. More interesting history involves the Romani folk, or Gypsies, who made them out of hickory, ash, or willow branches and sold them throughout the 19th and into the 20th centuries.  Sometimes with a metal clasp, and sometimes without. 





The laundress heroine in my Civil War novel The Chaplain’s Daughter
would have draped wash over bushes or low tree branches, or utilized lines strung in the army camps, but she very well could have had a form of clothespin at her disposal. The first recorded patent for the clothespin or clothes peg was in 1809 by Jeremie Victor Opdebek, and the first American patent on a slightly improved version was taken out in 1832.  Louisa May Alcott in her beloved novel LITTLE WOMEN references a clip which her character Meg uses on her nose, ostensibly to make it pert and dainty. So these Small laundry hanging tools appear to be in common use at least through the 1800’s. 

In 1852, a patent for the two-piece laundry clip emerged, utilizing a small connecting wire and spring. This invention is attributed to Vermont violinist David M. Smith, who credits the soothing creativity of his instrument playing with solving everyday challenges, such as safeguarding clean clothes from the wind scattering a hard days work over muddy fields.  This version of the clothespin has enjoyed great popularity and slight changes for 170 years. Sometimes made from plastic instead of wood, it seems its wooden origins are experiencing a revival with the eco-friendly consciousness of this generation.  

In 1887, another Vermonter, Salon E. Moore, added the ‘coiled fulcrum’ to Smith’s design. Vermont suddenly became the clothespin manufacturing capital of the world, cranking out tens of thousands of these indispensable laundry aides every day.  


What about you? Do you still hang your wash, or have you succumbed to the ease of modern conveniences such as the tumble dryer? CONTEST Share your answer or a favorite memory involving clothespins/washday in the comments  for a chance to win an e-copy of one of my Civil War novels, or a $5 Amazon gift certificate.  Winner drawn Friday Jan 10 by 8 pm eastern.





Kathleen L. Maher’s first crush was Peter Rabbit, and she’s had an infatuation with literary heroes ever since.  Her most recent novella, "Something Old, Something New’ released October 2019 in Barbour’s school teacher romance collection LESSONS ON LOVE. Her indie Civil War series Sons of the Shenandoah includes Genesis Award winner THE ABOLITIONIST’S DAUGHTER (2018) and  THE CHAPLAIN’S DAUGHTER (2019). Another Barbour novella collection, VICTORIAN CHRISTMAS BRIDES (2018) included her story "Love Brick by Brick" which showcased her hometown history.  Kathleen and her husband raised their three children and a small zoo of pets in their upstate New York historic farmhouse. 
Visit Kathleen at 
https://www.bookbub.com/profile/Kathleen-l-Maher 
Https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/7074205.Kathleen_L_Maher
Https://www.facebook.com/KLMaherAuthor/



34 comments:

  1. I come from Vermont and I never knew that it was so important in the evolution and manufacture of the clothespin!!! I don't have a clothesline and it's not convenient to put one up, but I hang my clothes on bars inside. Hubby uses the dryer. Thanks for the interesting post. bcrug(at)twc(dot)com

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    1. Thank you Connie. I have used the wooden folding hangers at times. I have to admit a tumble dryer makes it so easy, anc fluffs towels like nothing else. ☺️

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  2. I love the smell of clothes dried on a clothesline. Our neighborhood like many in the area have an ordinance forbidding clotheslines. So sad. The older neighborhood I lived in for 20 years allowed them. As a child I loved to play between the hanging sheets. I pretneded it was a castle or a secret hideaway until mom stormed the castle and folded the sheets. :) cindyhuff11(at)gmail(dot)com.

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    1. Cindy, those are wonderful memories! I can so relate! And yes, sun and fresh air on cotton is one of the most lovely scents on earth.

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  3. I used to hang my much of my laundry outside, until my arthritic hands did not allow me to squeeze the clothespins anymore. Now I hang what needs to be hung on plastic hangers - outside if I can, otherwise over the shower rod. I remember playing between the hanging sheets as well :). Thanks for the giveaway. bettimace(at)gmail(dot)com

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    1. I’m sorry that the pins bring pain to your hands. Arthritis is so mean. But modern conveniences can be a wonderful comfort, and our memories of these things will always be with us. Thanks for sharing

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  4. What an interesting and useful post! Yes, I'm in Chicagoland and have 20 feet of retractable clothesline (5) on the side patio of our house. As annoying as the removable poles are, we utilize them a lot in the summer! Nothing is better for brightening up linens and towels than glaring sunshine! Thanks, for the history--I've pinned it for further reference!

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    1. Hi Sandi. Thanks for pinning this. And great point about sunshine being a natural bleaching agent. So awesome you can utilize the great outdoors for your linens even in a city area. These rituals really link us to the generations before us, don’t they?

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  5. I have fond memories of Mama and Daddy hanging clothes on the line to dry. I was happy to finally be tall enough to reach the line and help with the clothes. :-)

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    1. Wow, yes. I never thought of it as a Rite of passage, but you’re right. Thank you Melissa. Sweet memories.

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  6. I haven't lived anywhere with a clothesline for 20+ years. I do definitly remember hanging clothes out on the back line as a child. I really don't remember particularly liking or disliking the chore.

    Nowdays I use clothes pins as chip clips=)

    pattymh2000(at)yahoo(dot)com

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    1. A great use for them, to keep food bags sealed. I like your thinking Patty.
      I confess I had a lovely clothesline here, but the lines eventually fell apart from disuse. I never felt more liberated than when my husband took them down. Lol. I do love my gas dryer.

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  7. I grew up with a dryer! Thank you for this fun post!
    psalm103and138atgmaildotcom

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    1. Thank you Caryl. I love that answer, too. Dryer sheets and warm, fluffy pajamas straight from the dryer are a wonderful indulgence. 🙂

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  8. I use both, in the summer I like to hang my sheets on he line. The dryer is much easier though.

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    1. I love the sound of a brisk wind flapping and snapping sheets and towels. 😀

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  9. I don’t have a clothesline, as they are not allowed here. But I grew up with using a clothes line at home and later at my mother in-law’s house. She had the longest and most lines I’d ever seen. And I was so glad to use them through the “diaper years!”
    Diapers are better dried on the line. I remember frozen diapers and towels brought in because they weren’t drying.

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    1. Oh, for sure. I used cloth diapers and Velcro diaper covers for my oldest and hanging on the line was a life saver. And I can still see in my minds eye the stiff forms of frozen laundry. Lol. Great memories

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    2. I hung a lot of diapers and clothes lines from my own child and from the large family I grew up with I still like to use a clothes line in the summer bed sheets and linens just smells so nice but you must remember just shake for bugs

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  10. I love the smell on clothes on the line... nothing like that smell... I used to help my mom put them on the line... with those wonderful pins... but towels and things get stiff... I guess I do like my dyer it makes things fluffy...!!!!! So glad I have a washer and dryer...!!!!

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    1. Those are some of my favorite memories too. And the towels were really good at scrubbing LOL. Perfect for exfoliation!

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  11. I grew up helping with the laundry and hanging clothes on the line. After we got an electric clothes dryer, we still hung out clothes in nice weather. My mom was very frugal.

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    1. I admire your mom’s frugality. I had a similar routine for a few years. Alas, my fear of bringing spiders or other crawlies inside with the wash curbed my enthusiasm.
      There’s a funny scene in my story involving that occupational hazard. 😀

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  12. Never knew all this!
    Love hanging Laundry
    Linda Marie

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  14. I longingly wait for the first nice days in spring so I can hang out my sheets, blankets, and pillows. I love falling asleep to the smell of fresh air laundry. I try to hang out my laundry all summer (weather permitting) but in winter it all goes into the dryer.

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    1. Great observation about falling asleep with the soothing smells of the great outdoors. I wonder if this might be a reason so many struggle with insomnia—less fresh air?

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  15. In UK these are known as clothes pegs or dollipegs. I can remember making dolls as a child. A criend of mine recently published her memoir Dollipegs -titled as she made dolls, and was very slim.

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    1. That sounds delightful! Thank you for adding to the conversation.

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  16. I love the smell of clothes dried outside on a line, unfortunately our neighborhood does not allow clotheslines. I do have 3 drying racks in the room above the garage for those things that I don't want to risk drawing up in the drier. My favorite clothesline memory is of our visits to my in-laws. They hung out everything, living just a few blocks from the beach in Southwest Florida gave the clothes a great smell, and they dried so fast, but I always tried to hide the unmentionables behind the beach towels and sheets.

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    1. That’s a great point, how we would pin the ends of the sheets to skip a line and put all of our delicates between them for privacy.

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  17. Thanks everyone for commenting. I have to run our winner via random dot org And congratulations go out to Patty. I will be contacting you via your email to find out your choice of book or a gift card.

    Keep looking for tomorrow’s history in ordinary things!

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  18. I still enjoy hanging my clothes out on the line. Nothing like hearing the birds sing and feeling the warmth of the sun on my face while I hang them! I even hung jeans out when there was a bit of snow on the ground late last fall.

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