The Wire Hanger's Flexible Symbolism

Its design hasn’t changed much over its short history, but its meaning has: An Object Lesson

Uniformed attendants wait to check guests' coats at an event at Lincoln Center in New York (Mike Segar / Reuters)

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.

The turn of the century saw an influx of hanger designs as high-end stores began using hangers to display their fashions (at the time, these new garment holders were called “shoulders”). Between 1900 and 1906, 189 patents were registered for various types of hangers, including designs with coil springs, metal clips, and hinges for easy portability. They were made of wood, fabric, plastic, and—of course—wire. In 1935, Elmer D. Rogers added a cardboard tube along the bottom brace of the wire hanger to diminish the appearance of wrinkles, creating a model that remains in production today and is especially popular among dry cleaners. In 2002, the Museum of Modern Art in New York included a Rogers hanger in an exhibition titled Humble Masterpieces, which assembled 122 familiar objects of design lore, and later acquired the hanger for its museum’s permanent collection.

But the most common association with the wire hanger involves its role in self-induced abortions. Prior to the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, illegal or self-induced procedures accounted for an estimated 5,000 deaths in the U.S. each year women annually (not to mention those critically injured). In a 2008 essay in The New York Times, the physician Waldo Fielding recounts his memories as a resident in a Manhattan hospital:

The familiar symbol of illegal abortion is the infamous “coat hanger” — which may be the symbol, but is in no way a myth. In my years in New York, several women arrived with a hanger still in place. Whoever put it in—perhaps the patient herself—found it trapped in the cervix and could not remove it.

Writing in The Atlantic in 2012, Rebecca Rosen argued that the hanger represents unequal access more than danger. While wealthy and well-connected Americans could attain safer abortions, members of the lower classes were forced to use makeshift methods for ending their pregnancies:

That twisted piece of wire—like the meat pulverizer, Everclear alcohol, and God knows what else—was a hack, a tool repurposed because the proper one was not accessible. Safe abortions were there for those with the means to get them. But for those with less privilege, less money, fewer connections—black, Latina, and lower-class whites including many Catholics—there were the hacks.

The hanger’s meaning remains divisive but flexible; it’s invoked as a symbol by both pro-life and pro-choice advocates. In 2012, in a curious act of protest, an Ohio dry cleaner placed pro-life advertisements on their hangers. (The company was roundly criticized.) More recently, the nonprofit D.C. Abortion Fund thanked their monthly donors with coat-hanger pendants, inciting the ire of pro-life supporters who called the necklaces “death jewelry.”

The coat hanger bears a burden on its narrow shoulders. Yet if any tool is capable of reinvention—of redemption—it is the wire hanger.

On a flight from Hong Kong to London in 1995, a young woman who had been involved in a motorcycle accident on the way to the airport began experiencing chest pains and shortness of breath An orthopedic surgeon on board the flight named Angus Wallace recognized the signs of a punctured lung; the plane’s crew considered a medical landing, but Wallace feared a sudden drop in cabin pressure would cause her to suffocate. He determined the only course of action was to drain the pleural cavity.

With the assistance of second doctor on board, he used a wire hanger, sterilized with brandy, and a urinary catheter to penetrate the chest wall and draw out the trapped air. The procedure lasted fifteen minutes and the woman experienced no complications for the remainder of the flight. Wallace received a $50,000 award for his airborne heroics, presented to him by former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher—an accolade that would have been impossible without the help of the humble coat hanger, whose role was quietly essential.

This article appears courtesy of Object Lessons.