The average wire hanger measures 17 inches lengthwise and 44 inches when straightened. It’s been this way, more or less, for a long time: While most first-generation devices have faded away to make room for more modern iterations, the malleable wire hanger has endured, with startlingly few modifications, for well over a century. By simply contorting its shape, it can be used to unlock a car door or clear a congested drain. Beyond clothes and household shortcuts, though, the wire hanger’s pliable design and relative ubiquity have fostered a close and complicated relationship between it and the human body.
The hanger was born out of necessity. For most of the 1800s, clothes were folded and stored in wardrobes, trunks, cupboards, and boxes. But as the skirt-and-bustle combination became more popular later in the century, companies to develop alternative means for preserving pleats and averting crease. In 1869, O.A. North patented an adjustable metal hook that is generally credited as the forerunner to the clothes hanger. But the modern hanger as we know it today wouldn’t appear for another several decades.
In 1903, Albert J. Parkhouse, an engineer at Timberlake and Sons in southern Michigan, had just returned from lunch and couldn’t find a place to hang his coat. Frustrated, he took a spare piece of wire and fashioned two long hoops, and with a second wire formed an adjoining hook. He spent several months perfecting the design, eventually abandoning the second wire. But Parkhouse never saw a penny from his invention—his employer, John Timberlake, applied for the patent. Parker died of a ruptured ulcer 24 years later; meanwhile, Timberlake and Sons remained in business for another 50 years.