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Clothespin Encounters

In search of the perfect peg.

ON MY OFFICE WALL is a framed photo from the Toronto Department of Health. Dated 1912, it depicts a family living in squalor, their laundry strung up around them. Four years before this photo was taken, it was possible to order an exquisite eighty-foot “India hemp cable laid sash clothesline” for twenty cents from Sears, Roebuck & Co. A superb one-hundred-foot manila line sold for forty-three cents. A lovely one-hundred-foot galvanized, rust-resistant six-wire line went for twenty-three cents. The people in my photo, however, used plain old rope.

The family’s straight wooden clothespins might have been ordered by the box—five dozen for fifty-eight cents—but had likely been salvaged and passed down from grandmother to mother to daughter. Some might even have dated back to the days when clothes pegs were either painstakingly homemade or purchased from a peddler, back when one had to undergo what a nineteenth-century diarist described as “the great domestic dread of the household”: sorting, soaking, scrubbing, hauling, boiling, rinsing, wringing, starching and hanging the laundry.

With the drudgery of washday largely behind us, the clothesline is now regarded either as an emblem of poverty that ought to be banned—tens of thousands of communities in North America have done just that—or a call back to so-called simpler times, when the pinning up of damp garments was a wholesome, home-baked art (read: neighbours shunned women who hung shirts sloppily). Members of the latter camp are now inspiring the innovators at places such as Ben-Mor Cables, a company at the forefront of a new age in clotheslines.

The Ben-Mor factory is a collection of green warehouses located in Saint-Hyacinthe, Quebec. The surrounding neighbourhood is made up of narrow two- and three-storey mid-century homes; some are brick, some are covered in siding, but almost all have balconies that anchor plastic-coated steel cords strung from nearby trees, telephone poles and fences. It’s November—it’s frigid—but many of the lines still sag under the weight of sheets, blankets, jeans, jackets and shirts hung out to dry.

Inside the warm Ben-Mor showroom, hundreds of clothespins of various shapes, sizes and colours are jumbled in pails and bags. There are pulleys. There are lines: ordinary, heavy-duty, green, blue or clear. There are also winches, hooks, drying racks, pulley elevators, spacers, clothespin bags and those outdoor umbrella dryers with webbed tops that fold down neatly around their stems when not in use.

This is where Richard Plante has taken the clothesline back to the drawing board. The director of sales and marketing for Ben-Mor is dressed in a pristine white button-down shirt that has never seen the inside of a dryer. “I always hang a shirt like this to dry,” he says, tugging at the crisply ironed fabric over his chest.

Plante is a man who thinks deeply about laundry. One day in 2004, he experienced an epiphany while contemplating his barbecue, deck chairs and other balcony accoutrements—including his Ben-Mor clothesline. “The most ugly product,” he says, pausing to catch my eye, “was my product!” His arms and eyebrows shoot up simultaneously in mimed incredulity.

Enter Ben-Mor R & D, a crew usually asked to create, say, a more durable cable for a construction firm or the US Army. The team tackled Plante’s balcony brainstorm and, ta-dah, this spring a new clothesline kit rolled off the factory line. Dubbed Harmony, it contains all the ingredients for setting up your own outdoor manual-drying system: a 150-foot line with a vinyl-coated galvanized aircraft cable (capable of holding at least 500 pounds of laundry), two zinc ball-bearing pulleys, one zinc spacer, one zinc mini-winch and two hooks.

The contents of this kit are colour-coordinated. Anything in the box made with zinc—normally silvery grey—has become a shade Ben-Mor calls Sahara Beige. It took twenty-four months of trial and error to select the most durable paint and to perfect its application on zinc so that the colour would not chip with use or fade under the sun. The clothesline, meanwhile, is covered in Moka PVC plastic, with just enough translucency to reveal its steel core. “So people don’t think it’s an electric cable,” says Plante in his Québécois-inflected English, “or a cheapy rope.”

It’s as if Martha Stewart got her hands on these utilitarian objects and set about correcting their offensive habit of looking more functional than decorative. And why not? As Plante points out, if people will pay dearly for a glistening stainless-steel barbecue—“to show off to their neighbours”—why wouldn’t they spend a few extra bucks for a better-looking clothesline?

The only thing missing from Harmony are the clothespins, but Plante’s working on that. He’s seeking a sturdy plastic clothespin design that will appeal particularly to Canadians. The right colour, the right shape: today’s clothespin innovations are all about vanity.

It wasn’t always this way. Early clothespin advances stemmed from wanting to alleviate hard labour. The US Patent Office issued the first peg patent on March 22, 1832. The design looked promising enough: a six-inch strip of hickory bent to form a clamp. But according to Barbara Janssen, an associate curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History and the force behind the 1998 exhibition America’s Clothespins, it was a dud. “It used a wooden screw to hold the two sides together,” she tells me. “It wasn’t very practical. If the clothespin got wet, the screw would swell and you wouldn’t be able to operate it.”

It wasn’t until 1853 that the first “modern” clothespin appeared: two wooden legs that could pivot and open on a metal spring. All told, between 1852 and 1887—coinciding with surging advances in manufacturing capabilities—146 different clothespin patents were issued in the United States. A few were feasible enough to put into production. Credit for the last major clothespin innovation goes to Italian-American entrepreneur Mario Maccaferri, also the creator of a plastic reed and a plastic guitar, and one of the minds behind the eight-track. He developed the first plastic clothespin during the Second World War, reportedly after discovering the shortage of wooden pegs while on an errand to buy some for his wife. His factory subsequently produced more than a million pins a day to meet wartime demand.

That was sixty years ago. The US Patent and Trademark Office website records some thirteen designs for clothespin patents issued between 1947 and 2005, with little evidence of eureka moments. Some designs resemble your ordinary wooden clothespin but with more toothy, formidable jaws. One looks like a pliable, plastic U; another like a distorted thimble. One pin, patented in 1984 by Raymond L. Woodley of Leeds—a design I have actually seen in use among my British acquaintances—lies on the page like a tiny, armless plastic doll with nubby legs, outward-curving feet and a flat, faceless head, all of which combine somehow to convey a perky playfulness. These new designs claim more constant pressure, cheaper or simpler construction, greater resistance to the forces of wind and less likelihood of breaking in two, splitting or leaping off the line without warning.

The more recent the patent, the more likely it is that appearance trumps function. The Clip ’n’ Stay clothespin created in 1999 by Bruce E. Ancona and Louis Henry in New York represents one of the first such “advances.” It’s a one-piece plastic specimen with a hairpin curve and jaws that click together at two circular knobs, giving it a sleek, teardrop shape. During its brief availability, the clamp came in a translucent blue, green and orange, what one design critic described as “a palette of contemporary colours.” Indeed, the pin earned brief notoriety when it won a host of design awards and was named one of Time Asia magazine’s top-ten designs of the year. But because EKCO Housewares, the company it was concocted for, retreated from the market, the pin is no longer manufactured.

Forgive me if I don’t shed any tears.

Recently, I bought a bag of the very latest pins—a January 2005 patent by a pair of inventors from France—from a shop in my Ottawa neighbourhood. These plastic pins (soft yellow, coral blue, delicate candy orange) sport wide thumbs, a straight spring rather than a hinge and a “soft-touch grip system” that will caress rather than dent your clothing (yes, “caress” appears on the packaging). At $6.69 for ten pins, a pack of these Euro Collection clips won’t get you through a fifth of your load of laundry. And yet the space given over to them on the clothespin wall at Home Hardware is surefire evidence of a market for Plante’s Harmony clothesline kit—and that companies are trying to get in on the clothespin action.

I’m one of those people who considers a loaded clothesline a fine, bracing, soul-enriching sight. What could be better than a row of bright colours and patterns lifting on gusts of wind, held in place by tiny, straight-backed soldiers, teetering this way and that, working their little hinges? But these newfangled designs, late-breaking tools, upper-class pulleys and happy little bits of moulded plastic only make me look at my bucket of old wooden pins and think, “What’s wrong with you, old friends? What have you—all fifty of you for $1.99—done to deserve this flogging?” It makes them seem out of it. Left behind. Let’s face it, they’re pushing rustic.

Which, when you think of it, is just this side of cool.

(See the rest of Issue 20, Summer 2006)