The little man with the laundry

Another item from my blog backlog file, this time a delightful (and informative and perceptive) piece in the Economist’s special year-end issue (of 12/24/16), “Mankind in miniature: A simple, oddly modern, oddly mystical machine”, illustrated here:


A hand-carved little man

The piece (unsigned, as is standard in the Economist) begins:

The clothespeg [AmE clothespin] has an ancient look. The simplest sort, with rounded head and body carved from a single piece of wood, might have come from an Egyptian tomb or a Mesoamerican midden. Their shape is vaguely anthropomorphic, like a forked mandrake root (“dolly peg” is the name in commerce), suggesting an offering to the gods of fertility, or of nature. It would be no surprise to find one in an Iron Age settlement, still attached to an Iron Age loincloth.

Odd, then, that the first such peg is not recorded until the early 19th century.

I enjoyed “Mankind in Miniature” so much that I was tempted to post the whole thing here, but I’ll pare it down some, summarizing a few bits in square brackets. The tale contnues:

The Roman soldiers at Vindolanda, on Hadrian’s Wall, did not peg up the thick socks for which they wrote desperate letters home; Lady Macbeth’s maid did not peg up the damp, still-spotted gown. Even Samuel Pepys did not expect to see his shirt, soused after a session at the Cock in Fleet Street, tethered with small wooden clips to a line. Instead, the clothespeg came only just in time to pinion Shelley’s tear-stained handkerchiefs from the wild west wind.

Before this, it appears, drying garments were simply hung over a line (as painted on a wall in Pompeii), or spread out on grass, as shown in illuminated manuscripts of surprisingly tranquil and unsteady laundry days. For John Clare, the peasant-poet of industrialising England, hedges were as likely to be blowing with underwear as with the blossoms of the sloe or the wild cherry. The fierce spines of the blackthorn or hawthorn held a petticoat as well as anything.

Some say fishermen first thought up pegs, to clip their nets to the rigging. But only one name emerges from the sea-fog, that of Jérémie Victor Opdebec, who took out a patent for the dolly peg in 1809, and of whom nothing else is known. He sounds Belgian. According to a charming fake biography by a mid-20th-century French cabaret group, Les Quatre Barbus, he had a scientific bent from boyhood, inventing devices to de-pip currants and to muzzle ants, but it was the desperate sight (and the faint song) of too-light lingerie fluttering perilously on the line that inspired his biggest brainwave.

Time, and the market, were just about ripe for him. People were cramming into cities, the drying grounds and hedges were receding, and clotheslines criss-crossed like cats’ cradles between slum windows. Besides, once the nifty little device became common, uses far removed from laundry could be found. When Charles Dickens suffered a seizure, a clothespeg was thrust between his teeth to stop him biting his tongue. In Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women”, Amy slept nightly with a peg on her nose to try to make it thinner (a method tried, too, by Diane Keaton). Cartoon characters found them a hands-free way of keeping nasty smells at bay. They are now used to keep food fresh and tablecloths flat, clip gels or diffusers to film lights, correct the hang of curtains, hold lit matches longer, squeeze out the last bit of toothpaste from a tube; in short, for so many essential tasks that humans may well wonder how they ever managed without them.

[At the time, clothespins were hand made, from native woods, typically by gypsies (aka Travellers). But then along came industrialization, and soon virtually all clothespins were factory made.]


The factory-made clothespin, as turned into wall art for Pottery Barn 

… [Then the metal spring:] It could be argued — and still is — that a metal adjunct is not an invention, merely a modification. Nonetheless David M. Smith’s “new and useful or improved … spring clamp for clothes lines” (1853) made him the inventor of the modern articulated peg. His design, as he described it in almost erotic detail, featured two levers conjoined with a spring so that “the two longer legs may be moved toward each other and at the same time move the shorter ones apart”, in harmonious opposition. His last diagram showed Opdebec’s design, “the common wooden clothes pin in common use”, as he scornfully described it. It was inferior because it had to be pushed on garments like a prong. By contrast, his own peg delicately clipped them to the line.

Inevitably that too was improved, by Solon E. Moore in 1887, with a “coiled fulcrum” of wire.


The Smith-Moore clothespin

… By the early 20th century the equivalent of 500,000 board-feet of lumber (perhaps 700 tonnes) a year, in the form of sawmill waste, were being pulled from the Green Mountains to make pegs at a rate of more than 20,000 a day.

[Eventually plastic clothespins mostly replaced the wooden ones, though wood has apparently become fashionable again.]


Plastic clothespins

The Smith-Moore peg is a triumph of design, equally pleasing when mini (to clip a sprig of lavender to a martini glass, or a favour to a wedding menu) or when maxi, as in Claes Oldenburg’s 14-metre-high steel “Clothespin” in Philadelphia. In 150 years, this item has not been improved on.


… This apotheosis of the peg began in a fittingly ordinary way. In 1967, as he left one day for the airport, Oldenburg [the Swedish-born American sculptor] slipped a clothespeg into his pocket. As his flight approached Chicago shortly afterwards, he held up the pin against the skyscrapers below and thought it could vie with them. Sketches followed, in which colossal pegs of “a certain Gothic character” stood with their heads in windblown clouds. Yet the more he considered the two leaning parts, joined by metal rings, the more Oldenburg compared them to Brancusi’s cubist stone lovers in the Philadelphia Art Museum. (“Cpin=kiss”, he scribbled on the print.) From this thought, sown in the public consciousness, flowed a dozen others. The immense clothespin, according to the city’s boosters, links Philadelphia’s colonial heritage to its difficult present; it reflects the city’s efforts to close the gap between rich and poor; and in its evocation of simple, domestic things it brings all men and women together.

Chief in the mind of the sculptor remained the simple thought of two lovers embracing. The same idea seems to have drifted through Smith’s mind as he wrote his patent proposal, and through the minds of many pegmakers, dealing with the simple spring and return of a piece of cloven wood. From this elemental urge to get together sprang all humankind — with its triumphs, its failures, its endeavours and its ingenuity.

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