“Steve, a very common household item brings us here this week,” Mike Hoey said.
“Yeah, Mike,” Vermont Historical Society executive director Steve Perkins said. “I brought my own — a clothespin, and particularly, this type of clothespin! Did you know that they were made here in Montpelier?”
“I did not,” Hoey replied. “Not until very recently.”
“(There was a) very long history of clothespin manufacturing right here in Vermont,” Perkins added. “Andrew Liptak, who works with us at the Vermont Historical Society, has written an article in our latest ‘Connections’ newsletter on the clothespin industry, so I’ve asked him to come join us.”
“It was a surprise to me,” Liptak said. “A museum guest came in and talked to me about it, and that sent me down the rabbit hole of clothespin history. So, what had happened is that in the 1700s, a couple of Vermonters had gotten patents for their inventions that made improvements to the clothespin. It used to be that you had a stick that you sort of split in the middle and would stick your clothes on. These improvements added springs and certain shapes to it that would allow people to clamp their clothing to a wash line. And part of this was driven by the development of cities; you didn’t have a lot of space to dry clothes.”
“(There were) a lot of photos of tenements in New York and elsewhere with laundry lines on people’s porches — what of them they had,” Hoey noted.
“As we were driving over here along the Winooski River, we noticed that the small dam — the power-producing dam right in the center of Montpelier — is the Clothespin Dam,” Perkins said.
“Yeah, (it’s) right next to Shaws,” Liptak added. “There’s a gas station there now. That was (the U.S. Clothespin Company) factory, and the distinguishing feature there was a giant clothespin on the roof — and it was apparently functional! That’s what a lot of people remembered coming into town, was this big clothespin factory.
“And there were a number (of factories) here in Montpelier. The factory here, the National Clothespin Company, moved up the river in 1918 to take advantage of the electrical lines that had been placed there.”
“I understand that it was the last one still operational,” Hoey said.
“It was,” Liptak continued. “The 1930s were sort of the heyday of the clothespin industry. After that, you have the global markets starting to open up. You have clothespins coming in from eastern Europe and China over the decades, and slowly, these factories sort of fell away. This is the last standing one. It closed down for the last time in 2003.”
Perkins observed, “2003, still making clothespins! And why did the clothespin industry start to go away?”
“Foreign, cheaper imports came in,” Liptak answered. “There was a lot of effort from the makers here to try to get tariffs put on the foreign ones — and also the washing machine and dryer! That certainly made it a little harder to sell them, when you could easily dry your clothes in your house all at once.”
“Yeah, you don’t need to have laundry lines up anymore,” Hoey said.
“(The dryer) also makes it easier in the wintertime,” Liptak replied. “As we can see right now!”