By Lynn Ashby 12 April 2010
THE CLOSET – It’s OK for me to come out now. Just don’t ask and don’t tell. I am speaking, of course, about coat hangers. Notice that you can’t unhook a single coat hanger, especially an empty one? They band together, get all tangled up. I went in my closet for one and came out with five. Coat hangers obviously breed and multiply during the night.
Look in the closet at your own supply. No doubt your collection varies in size color and style, but mostly the hangers are bent and bowed. This brings us to the obvious conclusion that there is not a single form of coat hanger (usually two words but not always and sometimes called clothes hangers). Here is the standard black wire version. This one is wooden, came with an expensive sports coat. (Why am I sounding like Andy Rooney?)
This one is clear plastic with notches on the top part so the straps from my ball gowns won’t slip off. (OK, just kidding about that. They do slip off.) This example has fuzzy covering on the top wires so something else won’t slide off. This hanger has clothespins on the bottom wire to hold pants. One company brags that it stocks 27 different kinds of hangers. You can buy them made of almost anything. On line, a maker advertises: “Our bamboo clothing hangers are ideal for the ecologically minded consumer.” Ecological coat hangers? Probably to hang your tiger-skin jacket.
This one is from a hotel, mine by mistake. I’d return it but have no idea from whence it came. We must assume that most motels and hotels had problems with guests deliberately or accidentally – like me – making off with coat hangers every day. For years, hotel maids probably pushed their carts down the hallways as they cleaned rooms and left new soap, toilet paper and lots of replacement coat hangers. Then some bright soul, probably a hotel maid, invented coat hangers with no hook at the top, just a little metal ball about the size of pea which slips into a claw-like device on the closet’s clothing pole. Thus no one is going to steal a coat hanger that is worthless back home – unless they live in a hotel.
There is big money in the coat hanger industry, but little sympathy for such an important part of our lifestyles. In the movie, “Down and Out in Beverly Hills,” Dave Whiteman (played by Richard Dreyfuss) makes millions and lives in Beverly Hills simply by making coat hangers. Costs 3 cents apiece to make, and he sells them by the tons. Dave has an exchange with his teenage son, Max.
Dave: “Max, I think it’s time you stopped all this screwing around and started to learn the hanger business.”
Max: “I don’t like hangers.”
Dave: “You don’t like hangers? It’s hangers that clothe you, and it’s hangers that feed you!”
In the 1981 movie “Mommie Dearest,” Joan Crawford, played by Faye Dunaway, becomes enraged that her daughter, Christina, is using wire coat hangers instead of the expensive, padded hangers Crawford/Dunaway gave her. She swats Christina with a wire hanger again and again, while screaming, “No wire hangers ever!”
Coat hangers are ubiquitous. Before Detroit caught on, hangers could open locked cars doors or be used to hot wire a car. They can serve as a TV antenna. One guy bent a hanger so it holds up his laptop. On beaches and picnics you see people straightening out hangers to stick hotdogs or marshmallow on the end and cook them over a fire. In 1995, Professor Angus Wallace used an unfolded coat hanger, sterilized with brandy, to perform emergency surgery on the collapsed lung of Paula Dixon in an airliner at 35,000 feet.
An ancestor of the hanger is the nail or, to get really fancy, the clothes hook or even antlers. Above my head on my office wall is a set of large, heavy cow horns. My great grandfather was a Texas rancher. Each day at lunch he’d come in and toss his sweaty, dirty Stetson on the dinner table. My grandmother, then a young lady, was disgusted by the habit, so she got the ranch butcher to slaughter a cow, bull or whatever, with the largest set of horns, had the set made into a hat rack, and ate a calmer lunch.
At this point, some of the more impatient among us are asking the musical question: “Why are we even discussing such a minor matter?” Hey, are you the same person who fretted for days over the Cowboys vs. the Texans – 22 unknown mercenaries fighting over a piece of inflated leather? You’ve probably spent hours watching “Lost.” So let’s not knock this conversation.
The coat hanger has been patented over 200 times in the U.S. alone. According to my intensive research, aka, plagiarism, today’s wire coat hanger was inspired by a clothes hook patented in 1869 by O. A. North of New Britain, Conn. In 1903, Albert J. Parkhouse, an employee of Timberlake Wire and Novelty Co. in Jackson, Mich., created a coat hanger after co-workers’ complained of too few coat hooks. He bent a piece of wire into two ovals, side by side, with the ends twisted together to form a hook in the middle. Parkhouse patented his invention, but it is not known if he profited from it at all and ended up in Beverly Hills.
You really can build a better mousetrap – or coat hanger. Schuyler C. Hulett received a patent in 1932 for improving the ordinary wire hanger. He inserted cardboard tubes onto the upper and lower portions to prevent wrinkles in freshly laundered clothes. Three years later Elmer D Rogers created a hanger with a tube on just the lower bar which we still use today. But the very first person to invent a coat hanger was Thomas Jefferson. Honest. Maybe he can get into Texas school books for that.
Ashby hangs out at email@example.com