Patents and the Silicon Valley of clothespins

The American comedian Rodney Dangerfield was most identified with his iconic line-—“I don’t get no respect.” He would have been so jealous of the clothespin, also called a “clothes peg”, or simply “peg”, depending upon where you live. For a generic product (can any Kat reader recall any clothespin brand?) whose market is inexorably shrinking, it still draws attention from publications such as the New York Times and, just recently, The Economist. In 1998, the Smithsonian institute’s National Museum of American History carried a display—“America’s Clothespins”--, which included 41 patents dealing with clothespins for the period between 1852-1887 (although the child of one visitor was heard to say-- “What’s a clothespin, Dad?”) All of this points to a fascinating tale of how patents served as a linchpin (with a Kat apology for the unintended pun) for the rise of the American of State of Vermont, nestled in the northwestern corner of New England, as, in the words of the New York Times, “the Silicon Valley of 19-century clothespin technology”.

As recounted, clothespins first appeared in the 19th century. Before then, wet laundry was simply laid out to dry on bushes, tree limbs and other available natural platforms. The earliest clothespin patent issued in 1832 in the name of Samuel Pryor, being a bent strip of wood held together by a wooden screw, fashioned in one piece and which held the wet clothes by virtue of a gripping action. Unfortunately, as described by Anita Lahey, the devise was impractical because “… even dampness would cause the screw to swell, rendering the pin inoperable.

The breakthrough occurred in a patent issued to David Smith in 1853. Smith, a resident of Vermont who was a prolific inventor in a number of different fields, described the defect of the then-current form of clothes as frequently being “detach[ing] from the clothes by the wind as is the case with the common pin and which is a serious evil to washerwomen.” His solution was a two-piece device, which contained two prongs with a small spring wedged in between. In the words of the patent—
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.
It seems that some mass manufacture (in the terms of mid-19th century America) of clothespins had begun already in the 1840’s. Try as he could, this Kat could not find any account directly connecting Vermont with such manufacture before Smith’s invention. However, this Kat’s historian instincts suggest that already at least some of this production was taking place there, if for no other reason than the availability of lumber in the forests dotting the state. As well, that Smith chose to make an invention regarding clothespins points to the presence of at least a nascent industry as a spur for his inventive talents. In other words, the components were already being put into place for Vermont to become the center of the clothespin industry.

While further patents issued sought to improve on Smith’s design to better performance of the spring, durability (the winter in Vermont can be rugged) and means of manufacture, the key breakthrough took place on in 1887. Then, Solon E. Moore came up with an improved form of device, what he called a “coiled fulcrum”. It can be no accident that Moore was also from Vermont. The clothespin industry was presumably all around, just waiting for someone like Moore to give it one further substantial push to enhance its design and lower manufacturing costs. Moore’s invention seems to have perfectly filled the bill. As Moore described his invention, it was--
… an improved article of manufacture, the clothes-pin described, consisting of the two clamps having the fulcrum-recess on their inner sides about midway of their length, the line-grooves in the beveled jaws, and the transverse grooves a on their outer sides in rear of the said line-grooves, and the spring composed of a single wire coiled at D, with the tangential arms E at opposite ends of the coil, with angular branches f at their outer ends, to engage the sides of the clamps and 5 prevent lateral displacement thereof, and the terminal parallel branches 9, oppositely directed to engage the grooves 011 the outer sides of the said clamps, substantially as specified.

A flurry of industrial activity soon followed. The United States Clothespin Company was established in 1887 to produce Moore’s improved design. In the face of what is described as vigorous competition from other Vermont-based manufacturers of clothespins, the company was the industry leader, at least for time. In 1909 (after the Moore patent had presumably expired), an employee of the company, Allan Moore, apparently not a relation to Solon Moore, more (bad Kat pun once again) or less, walked across street and established a rival, the National Clothespin Company, whose hallmark was an improved and less expensive means for manufacture of the spring fulcrum. Allan Moore’s company overtook The United States Clothespin Company as the industry leader. By virtue of a reservoir of experienced labor, know-how, an ever-seeking inventive environment, as well as Vermont-based lumber, the state had become the Silicon Valley of wooden clothespins.

But its pre-eminence was short-lived. After World War I, European competitors, especially those from Sweden, could manufacture wooden clothespins for less. The automatic clothes dryer diminished demand in various markets. The United States Clothespin Company closed for good in the 1940’s. Later, Chinese imports became a further challenge. The National Clothespin Company held on until 2009 as the last U.S. manufacturer of wooden clothespins, although it still makes clothespins of the plastic variety. By then, Vermont as the Silicon Valley was long a thing of the past. [Still, it is worth noting that except for the Wikipedia entry for "Clothespin", which does not provide citations for some of these facts, this Kat found no corroborating on-line information, except for reports that the company had ceased manufacture of the wooden clothespin in 2009.] Be that as it may, maybe all that remains are patent citations, as late as in a 1998 filed application citing the Smith patent.This is testimony both to just how pathbreaking these 19th century patents were, but also the limits of how far even the most innovative patents can take an industry, whether or not it was the Silicon Valley of its time.

To view Rodney Dangerfield and his skit on “respect”, see here.

For the "Clothespin" steel sculpture by Claes Oldenburg in Center Square in Philadelphia, see here.

By Neil Wilkof
Patents and the Silicon Valley of clothespins Patents and the Silicon Valley of clothespins Reviewed by Neil Wilkof on Sunday, February 26, 2017 Rating: 5

1 comment:

  1. Neil,

    I enjoy your Kat pieces but this one prompted me to respond. I congratulate you on your note on clothespins. I must disclose my particular bias. In the mid-1980s, I wrote a book on the protection of patents for laypersons called "Patent Your Own Invention".

    As a thread throughout the book, I use an invention to illustrate searching, claim drafting, disclosure drafting, patent drawings, prosecution, post grant amendment, infringement and numerous other issues.

    I thought long and hard about an invention that would be simple enough for all to understand but that would provide enough complexity to illustrate the issues and how to address them.

    I landed on a clothespin and “hung on”. The simple, yet complex, household device “held together” through all of the issues.

    Over 30 years later, I am proud of the choice and I am now reassured by your note. Thanks for your usual great contributions.


    Sheldon Burshtein
    Blake, Cassels & Graydon LLP


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