If these clothespins could talk …

What a find. Hard to imagine the situation in which a woman carved clothespins from select tree branches and then wrapped some scrap metal around the ends so they wouldn’t split entirely. Then, THEN, she hollowed out a larger branch and covered one end in a piece of leather to hold her FOUR clothespins. Precious indeed. How I wish I knew the history of these pins.

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Ah, it’s the little things in life …

The obvious, the humble,

The all-too-often overlooked.

Photo by Michael Jastremski / Wikimedia

With all of the big, glitzy gifts to be grateful for in a day (like, say, food and shelter), we tend to take such small conveniences for granted.

Clip it, and forget it.

Poor pin.

So, come on, sisters—let’s show ’em a little love.

Hear ye, little clothespin—whether you’re a prim one-piece peg or the snazzy spring-clamp sort,

we salute you!

Red Kimono on the Roof, 1912, by John French Sloan / Wikimedia

According to Barbara Suit Janssen, a curator at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, “The earliest clothespins were just handmade, carved from wood.”

I’m appreciating my pins more by the minute …

Despite the cool colors and ginchy gizmos that have jazzed up clothespins in the modern era, I admit that I adore the elegant simplicity of a carved wooden peg. From its gently curved crown to its sleek, ladylike legs, the old-fashioned clothespin—originally known as a gypsy peg—is an undeniable classic.

Photo of old handmade wooden pegs by Oxfordian Kissuth / Wikimedia

But who’s behind the pin that has secured generations of freshly washed clothes on windblown lines?

Most historians agree that the Shakers are responsible for this small wonder (I’d bet that it was a sharp Shaker mom who fashioned the very first peg). The Shakers may have come to America seeking religious freedom, but they made history for their crafty practicality. Necessity, after all, is the mother of invention, and the Shakers were keen on coming up with gadgets that made life more efficient. When you imagine the myriad methods that people might have employed to keep laundry on a line (weights, knots, kids—who knows?), the meager clothespin suddenly seems like a stroke of genius.

Of course, leave it to men to lay claim to such a handy device …

“The survival of the spring-hinged clothespin into the modern era is an unlikely story of Darwinian selection,” reports the New York Times. “From 1852 to 1887, the U.S. patent office issued 146 separate patents for clothespins. The first design that resembles the modern clothespin was patented in 1853 by David M. Smith, a prolific Vermont inventor.”

Smith was responsible for initiating the modern hinged pin, but his design was refined in 1887 by another Vermont inventor, Solon E. Moore, who simplified his predecessor’s double-hinged pin with a single coil spring that stuck. We’re still using it today. Alas, it seems the other 144 patented pins have been lost along the way.

The Times contends that, “In the age of Maytag, the clothespin’s survival can be attributed, in part, to its usefulness in craft projects and how easily it can be converted into reindeer.”

Touché.

Clothespins do make cute crafts, but I believe there’s more to the pin’s persistence than elementary art projects. For one thing, there is something in the clothespin’s simple, utilitarian elegance that inspires reverence on a grand scale.

Skeptical?

Take a gander at this superb sculpture in Belgium:

Clothespin art by Mehmet Ali Uysal

And how about the famous giant clothespin crafted by American sculptor Claus Oldenburg in Philadelphia?

Photo by Smallbones / Wikimedia

All artistic inspiration aside, though, clothespins are also a cultural staple, due to the basic fact that ladies like me love line drying. Look around, and you’ll notice that there continues to be a laundry revolution sweeping the nation. People everywhere are pinching pennies and saving energy by drying their duds in the open air.

With nothing to latch our laundry to the line, we’d be tossing towels over the nearest tree branch.

I love life’s little things. Don’t even get me started on the spoon …

Leave a comment 24 Comments

  1. Terry Steinmetz says:

    Thanks for the history lesson on clothespins. I too love the clothespin! Hanging out the laundry gives me a sense of peace. And I agree that a Shaker woman invented it! We always seem to make due & invent as we need.

  2. Winnie Nielsen says:

    I love this post about the history of clothespins. In your Ideadbook, I was drawn to the adorable apron to hold the pins while hanging up clothes. Since I have worked full time, doing laundry has been relegated to off hours which are not friendly for line drying. But now things are different and there may be more of a chance to do some line drying. I think what I really want is a reason to own and don a clothespin apron!! Maybe I will try and make some homemade laundry powder too. The MJF Connection has the recipe listed too. Once we get past the “tropical rain off and on every day period” I just need to take the plunge!

  3. drMolly says:

    Very interesting. It’s great to get to know from where some of our most useful tools have come. As well as the lovely smell of line dried clothes I truly appreciate the amount of money it saves us and the reduction in precious resource use.

  4. Elizabeth says:

    Awesome find MaryJane. I can & do appreciate the simplicity & practicality of the clothespin (as well as those who thought of, crafted & implemented their designs). I believe the Shakers invented a few other~important tools we still use today. Thanks for sharing the story.

  5. CJ Armstrong says:

    We grew up hanging our clothes out, in all seasons. In the early years of our marriage I lived in city apartments and, pretty much, had to use a dryer. But, moving back home and to the country has seen me going back to hanging clothes out in our clear, clean, sunshine-y Colorado air.
    I found a book titled “The Clothesline” which has a lot of history, great stories and wonderful photos about clothespins, clotheslines in general. It is a fun book to peruse.
    Thank goodness for creative, resourceful women-folk!
    CJ

  6. clothespin says:

    Wow! I love this! I love clotheslines and my entire blog is about simple stuff, including clotheslines.

    When I was in Peace Corps, my neighbors hung their clothes out on barbed wire fences… and yes, it resulted in lots of holes in the clothes. Clothespins are a huge advantage but are so simple now days that we tend to forget it.

    Thanks for the lovely post!

  7. Karlyne says:

    Humbling! I just bought an entire bag of wooden clothespins — at the dollar store! I think I’ll start taking better care of them…

  8. Chrissy says:

    Dryer went on the fritz just before vacation last June. I put up an umbrella clothes line, cementing the pole in place and hung out clothes when I could. Been hanging clothes in the basement during the winter, often leaving them 2-3 days to dry. I was really glad for spring to come and warmer weather with “speed” drying Gives a new appreciation for timing, deciding that an item can be worn another day and just generally not dirtying up so many clothes. Clothespins are a wonderful device. I use the snap ones, but I think pegs are much prettier. I can get the drier fixed, but I like the clothesline better. I figure, unless it’s monsoon season, things dry. (I like to iron, too.)

  9. Thayes says:

    Quilting and woodworking are daily activities at our house because we believe beauty and function go together. The clothespin is a perfect example of beauty and function! Thanks for the reminder.

  10. Annabel Barnes says:

    Beautiful rustic clothespins! Just love wondering about that woman’s day and her life. I was on a friend’s property looking for evidence of their past life and wondering what their day was like. My loving husband made me a clothesline and he loves crispy air dried t-shirts for work and sheets. I read the uv rays kill some the bacteria. Is this true? I love airing out pillows and bedding for freshness. Saving electricity is great and just the satisfaction of seeing those clothes reminds me of why I am here to serve my family.Truly refreshed by your articles.

  11. Barbara G says:

    I just moved to Tennessee and it seems all the appliances where I am now living are electrical. Coming from California I have a gas dryer. I am waiting for a propane converter for my dryer. So while I wait I am drying my clothes outside between rain storms. The fresh smells of the laundry reminds when I was a kid and my Mother would hang the clothes outside. I think I will continue to dry my clothes outside till the weather makes it not conducive to drying.

  12. Joan Kosal says:

    This article on clothespins is awesome and I still love the frehness of hanging out clothes. I had to hang them upbefore I went to School and then get them in when I came home. Tuesday was ironing day. I was raised on a wonderful farm. This magazine is truly a feel good. God Bless everyone for Posts on here and they are interesting. I love the Vintage pictures. I am from Kansas and if their are others from here I am looking for friends now. Joan

  13. Brenda Wheeler says:

    What a wonderful article. I have been hanging my laundry out for at least 40 years now. It makes everything smell so fresh. Also, the benefits are great. Exercise, saving money, clothes last longer and it’s just plain fun and rewarding. My friend was 98 when she past on. I was fortunate to receive all her clothespins. They aren’t anything really different from the ones I had, except they remind of her. Her clothespin bag is one that looks like a dress and it hangs in my laundry area. In the winter I use wooden clothes dryers near our woodstove. Brenda

  14. Debbie Fischer says:

    Those are true treasures Mary Jane, I will have to keep my eye out for some. I collect old clothes pins but have never found ones like the ones above.

  15. Trudy says:

    I love hanging sheets, towels and jeans on the line. Not only am I saving energy but they smell wonderful.

  16. Jeretta says:

    Thank you for the information about the clothespin.
    I don’t see how a man could have invented the clothespin, How many men hung clothes on the line in
    those days, let alone later on or even now? It had to be a Shaker woman.

  17. Julie Pruett says:

    I love finding old clothespins at estate sales, flea markets, ect. there is surely an interesting story behind them. I make vintage type hand wired clothespin bags, because I have such happy memories of hanging laundry out with my grandmothers. I love to hear from people that still line dry their laundry. I would like to think it brings people happy and peaceful thoughts…

  18. Elaine Dougovito says:

    Very interesting to know the history of clothes pins. I use the one piece peg and the hinged type. However, the one piece is far superior on a very windy day. You don’t have to hunt for your clothes as they don’t twist off the line and blow away. I always count on your blog for finding out things I didn’t know I needed to know! Thanks!

  19. Liette says:

    Hi, Wonder if someone could help me. My Mom gave me a Clothespin Shakers and I am curious to find out the value of it. Do you know someone or a place that could evaluate it? Thank you

    • MaryJane says:

      Sorry I can’t be of help Liette. You might try looking on Ebay to see what others are selling them for.

  20. Rose Cook says:

    Enjoyed reading. Love these type of articles.

  21. Carol Creasman says:

    Could you share the contact info on the cloths pin maker selling their wares that you mentioned in an article in the magazine last year, please. I’m having clothes line poles custom made and hope to have them by this summer. I’d love to have ‘made in USA’ pins to use with this. I also have found a wringer washer in great condition that I’m going to ‘plant’ next to the front pole & grace that with an aluminum pan filled with petunias! Should be fun! Love your many forms of contact – blessings to you and yours! Hugs, Carol Creasman

  22. Ruth Ann says:

    I’m watching a short clip of Outlander posted on Face Book.
    The women are taking clothes off the line.
    I said self, those clothespins are way too new looking to have been around in 1740.
    Just a tiny blooper on the part of the show.

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