Tools of the trade: How the clothes hanger found its hook

It was popularized for store displays, then reshaped the home closet.
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Mommie Dearest/Paramount Pictures Studios via Giphy

· 5 min read

There are devices in the retail world you take for granted. Let’s stop doing that.

The clothes hanger

  • Patented: 1852
  • First patent holder: William B. Olds

Above the fold: As ubiquitous as they are now, if you showed a clothes hanger to someone in the US a couple centuries ago, you probably would have been met with utter bafflement. Coats were hung on pegs, while other clothing was folded and stacked in bureaus and on shelves. If you went to the dressmaker or haberdashery, what would be on display primarily were textile rolls to choose among for the tailor, since the mass manufacturing of ready-to-wear clothing didn’t begin to take off until around the 1840s.

And while we depend on them to prevent wrinkles, the history of clothes hangers themselves has plenty of them. In 1852, William B. Olds secured what is believed to be the first patent for a hanger, which he called a “revolving coat form.” It was mounted on the wall like a sconce, and a foot or so away from the wall, there it was: a curved metal arch that a coat fit neatly on.

  • It was, according to an article on the history of hangers published in the Clothing and Textiles Research Journal, designed for store-display purposes, but it may fall short of how we’ve come to conceive of hangers. It lacked the same thing as countless rejected novel manuscripts: a hook.

Many accounts say the hook came about five decades later, from Albert J. Parkhouse, who worked at the Timberlake Wire and Novelty Company in Jackson, Michigan. There weren’t enough pegs for employees’ coats, and in 1903, finding no shortage of wire at the wire company, he twisted some into a crude hanger. With this hack, several coats could be hung from a single peg.

Parkhouse apparently never saw a dime for his invention, though, because he was on the clock when he came up with it, and in 1904, his employer, John B. Timberlake, secured the patent.

Getting the hang of it: Also in 1904, John Thomas Batts, who’d worked in a men’s clothing store, secured a patent for a clothes hanger. He began producing what he called “wishbone hangers,” with rounded wooden shoulders and a wooden bar with a spring for holding trousers securely.

“Men’s suits back then would take up three stacks [on shelves or tables]—one each for trousers, vests, and coats,” Batts’s grandson, John H. Batts, said in a 1993 interview quoted on the National Museum of American History website. “He figured this was a lousy way to display garments for sale.”

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But Batts’s company, which designed hanging display cabinets along with hangers, wasn’t just pitching hangers; it was pitching the then-novel idea that suits should be hung rather than folded.

“Not only is less space required, but there is less wrinkling and also provision for more apparel,” read a 1917 mention in American Contractor

  • While hangers—and poles in closets to hang them on—would become standard in homes around the 1920s, the Clothing and Textiles Research Journal article asserts that it was the retail use of hangers that popularized them.
  • Between 1852 and 1932, 52 hanger patents that were secured stated their purpose was for commercial use, according to the article.

On a bender: Wire hangers are so common in households (dry cleaning!) that they’ve become associated with unintended uses, too.

When radio antennas break off, hangers can be fashioned into crude yet effective replacements, as they could for televisions and cars, which also once had telescoping antennas that busted off. In late model cars with manual door lock knobs, if you were locked out, you could fashion a wire hanger to push through the rubber molding at the top of the window and unlatch the lock.

They are also useful for an endless array of craft projects, from chandeliers to iPad stands.

More darkly, the hanger has also, of course, become symbolic, often appearing on signs at pro-choice demonstrations as a reference to the era when abortion was illegal and some women were so desperate they’d resort to coat-hanger abortions.

GOH! It sounds like Homer Simpson dropping a bowling ball on his foot, but it’s also a supply-chain acronym for “garments on hangers.” It’s a popular shipping method where clothes are put on hangers at factories and loaded into shipping containers fitted with hanging rails.

Among the advantages are that clothes may arrive less wrinkled than if folded in a box, require little or no cardboard packing materials, and may require less labor to display once they ultimately arrive at a store.

Among the disadvantages: all those plastic hangers.

Hanging around: About 85% of temporary hangers, the kind commonly used in GOH shipping, end up in landfills, according to a 2019 estimate from sustainable-hanger manufacturer Arch & Hook, cited by Business of Fashion. Brands like Target and Zara have committed to reusing hangers more, BoF also noted, while hanger brands themselves are stepping up their own programs to reuse hangers and to manufacture them from recycled materials.

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