Nicholson Baker, Nicholas Carr, and Googling Clothespins

Nicholas Carr might argue I got stupider this week, and I admit that I did spend more time than usual on Google. Carr’s influential Atlantic article, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” (July, 2008), has been picked up by the English teaching gaggle to promote reading. I’m going to save that argument for another time and place. One of the first to use Carr’s article, I did not use it to promote reading, but to discuss the elements of argument; for now, I want to explain why I spent more time than usual on Google this week, and show what I found. The first is easy to explain; I discovered Google Patents. The second is easy to show – clothespins. Here’s what happened.

I came across one of my old Joseph Mitchell tri-folded reporter note sheets and realized I had never followed up on a note I had made to research a section in Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist, a novel about a procrastinating poet, whose ruminations, while stalling to write an introduction to a new poetry anthology he’s put together and found a publisher for, produce, in the end, the introduction itself. My note was to research something I found interesting on page 116 of Baker’s novel. Baker’s poet, Paul Chowder, staggers into a discussion of clothespins, and makes this claim: “There was a factory in Vanceborough, Maine, that made eight hundred clothespins a minute in 1883.”

I boarded Google but failed to find the factory. Growing stupider by the minute, I looked up clothespins in Wiki, where a claim is made that the Shakers invented the clothespin, but they didn’t patent their inventions. Patented or not, it would seem that the clothespin, technologically an extension (as McLuhan might explain) of the human finger and thumb clamp, must surely predate the Shakers.

The paperclip might be an evolutionary relative of the clothespin, as shown by my research in Google patents. To the left, is a drawing of a patent by A. W. Burch, dated July 2, 1907. The pin is made of wire, and appears to have been inspired by the paperclip.

Many patents seek to improve upon ideas already patented and manufactured; for example, Roy V. Shackelford, of Long Beach, California, was granted a patent in 1939 for a clothespin that “attached to a line in such a manner that the clothes which are fastened in the pin never come in actual contact with the clothes line.”

Sarah J. Miley, in 1898, wrote a patent that discouraged traditional one piece bifurcated wood clothespins from splitting in half, through the addition of a metal  “stay plate” in the handle end (drawing left).

It might have been a stupid week, but I will never look at a clothespin the same again, nor a paperclip, for that matter, nor the possibilities for the extensions of the human for inventions that we call technology.

As for Nicholson Baker’s factory, how many clothespins do we need? The answer to that might be found in A. R. Stewart’s invention (drawing below), patented in 1874. It’s not a clothespin; it’s a machine to make clothespins. The Shakers didn’t need to patent their clothespin because they had no intention of mass producing and marketing it; if they needed another clothespin, they would simply make a new one. Manufacturing, like specialization, leads to extinctions.

Stewart’s patent application, titled “Improvement in Machines for Making Clothes-pins,” does not mention the number of clothespins the machine is capable of producing per minute, but instead describes a machine “capable of forming a perfect clothes-pin at each downward movement of the saw and cutters, and, as the finished pins are removed by the same upon their upward stroke, no other attention is necessary except to supply the blanks to the hopper.” The improvement seems to be found not in the quantity of clothespins produced, but in the saving of labor required to produce them. I thought of Melville’s Bartleby: Ah technology! Ah, humanity!


  1. SteveR says:

    Very interesting info – but what was the point of your googling for clothespin info.
    Could wooden clothespins be mass produced in North America – or must they be produced in China – this is the question I am seeking.
    Is the form of a manufactured clothespin necessarily different than a (mostly) handmade clothespin such as made by the shakers simply because it is machine made (or hand made)?


    1. Joe Linker says:

      Thanks for reading and commenting. The point – something about procrastinating maybe, one of the themes of the Baker book, and one of the themes of Carr’s criticisms of Google (but this is where ideas come from, Fuller argues), but I was curious about the factory Baker mentions, and I saw an opportunity to test Google as a research tool, and at the same time, I discovered Google patents, and was surprised to find the clothespin patents. I just enjoyed reading how the patents were written, the clarity and purpose. I read through a bunch of them: televisions, bicycles, cars, musical instruments, plumbing, tools – I don’t remember all that I looked at. A lot of them are refinements.

      As for the possibility of wooden clothespins being mass produced in NA, I don’t know that there’s a market for them now. I’m not sure the project would pencil out, i.e. the cost to make a machine vs revenue from sales of clothespins. And you’d be competing with plastic made pins, too. Speaking of pencils, Thoreau improved a patent on the making of pencils – his father apparently owned a pencil making factory. I’m not sure folks these days think or even have the opportunity to think of ideas like these anymore, at least not to bring to a productive stage. We are maybe too distant from even the idea of manufacturing. Or everyone with the creative ideas is working on some new tech. app. But here’s an idea: Build the clothespin into the clothes. So the shirt, the pants, the hat, has some sort of clip that attaches to the clothesline. Maybe it’s just a tie, an extra string attached to the article, like the extra buttons at the bottom of shirt tales. Paradigm shift.

      Still, it’s curious how the factories came and went, and how quickly. Anyway, I don’t think the form of the handmade clothespin is different from the mass produced one. The point of mentioning the Shakers is there has to be a need, and where there’s not, advertising creates a kind of perceived need. So there’s another thread, how advertising drives manufacturing.


      1. SteveR says:

        I like the way you think.
        I think clothespins will make a comeback. Clothes dryers are incredibly wasteful and are available only because of our access to cheap energy. We use them because we don’t know anything else, clotheslines have been banned in some places, or we are too lazy and like the convenience. ( I shared a house recently where, on the hottest, sunniest day of the year, the roommates put their wash in the dryer). This house even had a clothesline!)

        The form of the clothespin, I believe, is related to what we create by hand vs machine. This is the case with many things. Thought experiment:You are lost in the woods. You’ve made rope from the inner bark of basswood. You’ve come across some bracken and have used the roots as soap and have washed your clothes. You wish to hang it up to dry in the sun. Are you going to try to find a way to make plastic? Are you going to mine ore so you can forge some little springs? Are you going to cut wood into little rectangular pieces? Nope, you ‘re going to find a branch about the thickness of a thumb, cut off a few inches, tie off the end and then split the end. There’s your clothespin.

        Now, apparently some people are relooking at making clothespins.
        Here’s a place in vermont which still has the original clothespin making machine and making lovely pegs out of maple – at about $1.50 a pop, however, he is relying on a rich vein of back to earth wannabes.

        They claim to be the only clothespin makers in the US.
        But they are not.
        In NY state, there is another person having a go.

        However, the approach here is to reproduce a machine made peg, by hand. A wrong approach, in my opinion. His price – also $1.50/peg. Who do you think is more profitable.

        And so, maybe manufacturing is slowly returning to NA. All of us working at Walmart selling things made in China hasn’t proven to be much of a strategy for an economy.


        1. Joe Linker says:

          Thanks for the links. I took a look at both sites. Interesting. I wonder about distribution. The hand made process looks time consuming. Another advantage to line dried clothes is they maintain a crispness and freshness you don’t get from machine dried clothes. Even on a line in a basement.


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