The Clothes Hanger: And Thereby Hangs the Tale
by Marjorie Dorfman

Where did people put their coats before hangers were invented? Why is this important to know? Read on for the answers to these and other equally hangingly suspenseful questions.

T’is a poorly fellow who hath not a hanger for his cloak.
– Sir John Vanbrugh, The Suitor (1704)

There are some things in every day life that we just don’t think about. Paper clips, rubber bands and coat hangers always seem to just be there whenever we need them to do their silent, specific duty. But everything has to come from somewhere, and the stork surely didn’t bring every single thing into creation. (After all, aren’t babies enough?) So how, one might ask, did this all come to be? Surely prehistoric man had no place to hang his coat; but then again, he probably had no coat to hang, so to speak. Genteel civilization waited centuries for the discovery of coats and the subsequent need to hang them somewhere.

Enter the wooden coat hanger with its oddly political origins. Its true inventor was none other than the very busy man who created the hideaway bed, calendar clock, dumbwaiter, and last but not least, the Declaration of Independence: Mr. Thomas Jefferson. His coat hanger was thick and wooden, but it did the trick. Obviously so, because look how famous he and his coat (not to mention his sexual affairs with his slaves) became!

Hangers have an intricate and unexpected history associated with queens and kings and other strange noble people. Many are on exhibit today (the hangers, not the people) at an amazing online museum known as The Museum of Coathangers. Only some can be mentioned here, as the list is prodigious and would convert this article into a novella. The Etron dates back to 1840. Designed by Stanley Fry of Birmingham, England, it was one of a set that was presented as a wedding gift to Queen Victoria upon her marriage to Albert Saxe-Coburg. Fry, who was better known as a maker of confectionery, had wanted to present the newlyweds with a chocolate sculpture, but an arch-rival, Gilbert Cadbury (note character trait in name), had already had the very same idea accepted by Buckingham Palace. Determined not to be outdone, Fry set about making the Etron, based on and named after a type of traditional French chocolate.

Now faded and alone, this single Etron stands as part of an exhibit of aristocratic coat hangers with a pedigree but no particular place to go. The covering was originally deep crimson with a wooden frame padded with lamb’s wool and a hook of gold-plated iron. Delicate filigree work was woven into the intertwined initials of Victoria and Albert. (No wonder divorce is not too prevalent among royals. There’s so much involved just in dividing up the coat hangers!)

Another notable museum member is The Faussaire, designed and manufactured in the Parisian workshop of Albert Trou, the foremost coat-hanger producer of his age. The hanger stands alone, the only survivor of a set of twelve commissioned by Enzo, 14th Duke of Navarre in 1808 to celebrate the marriage of his daughter, Celestine, to the elderly Phillipe Cortes. The hanger features cotton wool padding over a wooden frame, covered by a fine woolen fabric decorated with motifs based on the Cortes coat of arms. The pochette, a common feature of hangers of this era, would have been filled with aromatic dried flowers or herbs to scent the garment.

As the story goes, the coathangers were never delivered due to the death of Cortes from syphilis on the day before the wedding. (To the Spanish, sometimes referred to as the "Frenchman’s Disease," to the French, the "Spaniard’s Disease" and to the English, well, they blame it on someone else too!) Anyway, the set of hangers disappeared for a while, eventually resurfacing on the island of St. Helena, where four of them were presented to the exiled Napoleon Bonaparte, a connoisseur of hangers and a man with nowhere to hang his royal cloak. After Bonaparte’s death in 1821, they were given to his faithful retainer, Henri Le Camp, for safekeeping. Three of these four were destroyed when LeCamp’s home in Paris caught fire in 1827. The remaining one survived because LeCamp rushed into the fire to save it, thus risking his life not for the cause of his beloved deceased leader, but rather for a coat hanger!

Another interesting addition to the museum collection is a hanger that hails from Bath, England. Designed by Reverend Aubrey Moon, it illustrates what can happen when coat hanger design goes terribly wrong. The Excelsior was the Reverend’s first and only attempt to design a coat hanger and civilization should be grateful, if not religiously so. It is said that he produced this wretched creation while awaiting the outcome of his ecumenical council meeting, which ultimately led to his dismissal from the clergy. Although it is not known exactly what he did for this to occur, his hanger stands alone in a field of outrageous disproportion and ostentatious concept. Still, the Excelsior was put into production. The Hunter Catalogue of 1910-1912, describes this hanger as "an abomination…which should only be removed from the confines of the wardrobe in order to scare away beggars or admonish the servants," and being "not fit even to hang a cat." (Ouch! I hope my four felines don’t read this! I’ll get catitude for a week, if they do.)

Another nostalgic number, the M55, was manufactured by Steinway and Company of New York in 1885. Commissioned by the Metropolitan Hotel on Manhattan’s 55th Street, the M55 is a fine example of the classic American style of the period. The hotel utilized these hangers until it was demolished to make way for a car park in 1965. The M55 was the first coathanger to be produced using modern factory methods. Before, all hangers were individually handcrafted, often by midgets. (Don’t ask me. It’s true, but I don’t know why.) This hanger was also the first commission to be undertaken by Steinway and Company, who went on to become a world famous manufacturer of concert grand pianos.

The wire coat hanger has its own particular, if not blander history than its more decorative counterparts. I am not without my own prejudices, as I feel the same way about them as Joan Crawford did. Its creation was inspired by a clothes hook originally patented in 1869 by one O.A. North of New Britain, Connecticut. In 1903, Albert J. Parkhouse, an employee of Timberlake Wire and Novelty Company in Jackson, Michigan, created a makeshift coat hanger in response to co-workers’ complaints of too few coat hooks. Although necessity has always been considered the mother of invention, in this case it was the father, who bent a piece of wire into two ovals with the ends twisted together to form a hook. Parkhouse patented his invention, but it is not known whether or not he profited from it.

Schuyler C. Hewitt received a patent in 1932 for an improvement on Parkhouse’s creation, which involved cardboard tubes screwed onto the upper and lower portions to prevent wrinkles from forming in freshly laundered clothes. Three years later Elmer D. Rogers developed a hanger with a tube on the lower bar, which is still used today.

In 1914 Ambrose Rice came up with the revolutionary concept of reclaiming spilled molten steel from the factory floor to make wire coathangers. The outbreak of the First World War had halted production, and afterwards Rice was unable to find a factory willing to continue with the project. He died in 1940, a broken, embittered man with no hangers. His youngest son, Michael, however, took up his father’s cause as soon as he left the army in 1945. His design was a carbon copy of his father’s, and it was called the Stella PT 308. (Not to be confused with 309 which somehow became an Irish-American U-boat. Or was that 109? I’ve never been very good with figures.) Anyway, advances in technology meant that Rice could now utilize galvanized steel wire rather than the remolten spillage of his father’s model. The novelty of a wire coat-hanger, plus its inexpensive production ensured its popularity, and by 1950, the wd-100 was a standard feature in many low rank hotels and tawdry establishments, but never in Joan Crawford’s home.

In 1954, Michael Rice sold the patent and design rights to Bingley Associates and production only ceased in the mid sixties to make way for its successor, the wa-200.

For all of its history and obvious utilization, there are things one can do with a coat hanger that have perhaps, heretofore, not been thought of. For example, use as a plant marker. Insert a section of straightened wire hanger tagged with the plant’s name (in case it has forgotten) and the planting date at the end of each row of seedlings. How about Christmas trim? Cut lengths of wire from a hanger and bend them into star and angel shapes. Decorate with spray paint and then hang on the tree. Use as a bubble maker. To make extra big bubbles and be the envy of your neighborhood, shape a length of hanger wire into a hoop with a handle and dip into an extra-strong bubble solution. (Avoid nitro-glycerin.) Then wave it through the air. (If you are over twelve years of age, it is recommended that you wear a mask while performing this feat in front of the neighbors.) A hanger can also serve as an arm extender. If a utensil has fallen behind an unreachable spot, straighten one end out except for the hook, and use it to retrieve the object.

In conclusion, wake up and smell the coffee and learn to appreciate your coat hangers. They are so taken for granted. Don’t be surprised if one day you wake and find them on strike and unwilling to perform, stirred to revolution by other inanimates who found strength in numbers and are tired of ungrateful coats and owners. Talk to them, and let them hang alone and unburdened once in a while. Put them in front of a window on a nice day and let them bask in the sunshine. But if they talk back to you, well, thereby hangs another tale!

Did you know . . .

Copyright 2004