I am going to guess that nobody gives a second thought about the origin of clothes pegs – or clothespins as they are sometimes called, until one by one they break, and you suddenly find you are running short and are double-pinning your wash load on your washing-line. They have umpteen other uses too – clipping big crisp bags closed is a favourite, and I have a couple holding the actual peg bag onto my clothes airer – not to mention the ones holding my wall calendar together where the perforations have finally torn ‘December’ away from the spiral.
Before the invention of pegs, women routinely heaved wet washing over bushes or spread clothing on the ground to get their laundry dry (risking making it even dirtier, or worse, getting creepy crawlies making a home in your unmentionables!). Some say fishermen first thought up pegs to clip their nets to the rigging, but I don’t know how true that might be.
Early pegs were more than likely just v-shaped twigs pushed down over the corners of items to stop the wind snatching them away, but in the early 1800s, a man called Jérémie Opdebec came up with the idea of the simple clothes peg made from wood, with two long legs and a rounded head to push wet clothes on to a clothesline to keep them in place. His timing for such an invention was just perfect as people were expanding into cities, drying grounds and hedgerows were disappearing, and clotheslines began to criss-cross city streets. Even in those days pegs were used for other purposes – it is said that when Charles Dickens suffered a seizure, a clothes peg was thrust between his teeth to stop him biting his tongue.
When toy making ceased during World War 2, children would make toys from items they found in and outside their homes, and the tradition of making peg dolls out of wooden clothes pegs came from these times, using scraps of fabric and lengths of wool or string at a time when people had little money to spend on toys even if they were available. Clothespin dolls were also often made by American Civil War veterans while they were recuperating in hospital, and were a source of income for them, usually selling for a penny each.
Gypsy pegs were a similar type of clothes peg which were made by travelling farmworkers, and were made in the winter months when there was very little farm work about, and were sold door-to-door to help supplement their income. Gypsy pegs were traditionally made from hazel or willow that had been found growing wild on their travels.
From 1852 to 1887, the U.S. patent office issued 146 separate patents for clothespins (146!), with the first design that resembled the modern clothespin being patented in 1853 by David M. Smith, a prolific Vermont inventor. It was made with two wooden ‘levers’ attached together by a metal spring and was designed to open and close in a pinching fashion, rather than just wedging it over the washing.
Modern day clothes pegs are still made this way, but they have downsides too as sometimes they twist and the two pieces of wood and the spring need fixing back together (you need a good brain for this!). Plastic pegs are also now available, but even these get brittle in Portugal’s sunshine, with some having cushioned pads that won’t mark delicate fabrics. Others are made from stainless steel, some with built-in hooks, others designed for hurricane strength winds.
They have even been reinvented in miniature for crafting and photo displaying, and musicians have been known to use them to keep their sheet music in place. Most clothespins are now cheaply assembled almost exclusively in China, but rising manufacturing and labour costs - and the use of dryers - are not the whole story. They say that disposable diapers probably did as much damage to the industry as anything else, as prior to the invention of these, families were washing diapers all the time, and nothing was more satisfying than to see a line of cloth nappies getting a good airing on a washing line!