The True Story of
How the Wire Coat Hanger Got Invented
By Gary Mussell, Great-grandson of the inventor
|For over 100 years, my family has had a tradition of orally passing down the legends and stories about the lives of our ancestors from one generation to the next. It is a tradition which we love to share with others, and thus the purpose of this paper is to pass along one of our family's favorite stories about how the wire coat hanger was invented by my great-grandfather, Albert J. Parkhouse.
BIO: "Albert J. Parkhouse was a born tinkerer and inventor, " his brother-in-law, Emmett Sargent, used to tell me when I was young. Albert was born in St. Thomas, Canada, just across the border from Detroit, Michigan, in 1879. His family migrated down to the town of Jackson when he was a boy, and it was there that he met and eventually married Emmett's older sister, Emma. Their daughter, Ruby, my grandmother, often told me he was "quiet, modest, unassuming, and fun-loving to friends," but that "Mom was really the boss in the family." Both Albert and Emma rose through the ranks to be leaders in the local Masons and Eastern Star organizations.
Albert went to work for a local company in Jackson named Timberlake & Sons. John B. Timberlake had founded the small sole proprietorship in 1880 and by the turn of the century, he had managed to collect several dozen enterprising inventor-type employees such as Albert, who made wire novelties, lampshades, and other ubiquitous devices for their customer clients. If anything truly unique was developed by the individual employee, Timberlake applied for a patent on it, and the company reaped whatever fame and reward that followed. It should be noted that this is a traditional employer-employee relationship in American business, and it is especially prevalent in late 19th Century firms, and even practiced by such well known inventors as Thomas Edison, George Eastman, and Henry Ford.
NOVEMBER, 1903: As family legend has it, on a cold day in 1903, Albert came back to work from lunch only to find there was no more hooks available to hang his heavy coat. Apparently this had happened often, as there were never enough hooks for all the employees, and Albert disliked having to lay his good winter coat behind a chair day all day where it always got wrinkled. So, in a burst of inventive inspiration, he grabbed some wire and twisted it around so that it fit inside the shoulders of his coat. Then he bent another wire to curl in the center, allowed him to hang the coat practically anywhere he wanted. He continued to refine the idea over the next few weeks and soon, all the other employees started using copies provided by Albert. Photos of Albert and of one of the original coat hanger are above.
Timberlake's lawyer, Charles L. Patterson applied for the patent on January 25, 1904, and U.S. Patent # 822,981 was granted and assigned to John B. Timberlake. (Patterson put his own name on the line that asked for "Name of Inventor.") A second patent, 877,726, was granted to Timberlake's son, Paul J. Timberlake, on June 7, 1907, for a more elaborate hanger which he termed a "shirt drier." Between 1900 and 1906, over 89 different patents were granted on different versions of "garment-hangers" by the U.S. government, but this one patented by Patterson and Timberlake, because the company has the marketing and built-in customer base already for other products, is the one on which eventually our modern models were later based. (The hanger's familiar horizontal support bar was added a few years later when the thickness of the wire was reduced to save production costs but they found the "bow-tie" look of the original design kept collapsing under thei weight of heavy coats.)
Albert "was a little bitter" about having Patterson naming himself as the inventor, and having the truth remain unacknowledged to the world but to a handful of his work associates. But to our family's knowledge, there is no evidence that Albert felt any of his ideas were "stolen" while employed by Timberlake, and as far as we know, Albert never received any additional compensation beyond his normal salary for his invention. However, it should be noted that it wasn't long after that Albert quit Timberlake and moved his family from Jackson, Michigan to Los Angeles, California, and founded his own wire novelty company. He remained there until his sudden death in 1927 from a ruptured ulcer. He was 48 years old when he died.
J.B. Timberlake and Sons remained in business for 73 years. Paul Timberlake carried on in his father's footsteps, and the firm's employees invented many wire gadgets we take for granted today: wire baskets for carrying milk, curled wire holders for displaying flags on automobiles, brackets for kerosene lamps, and metal shepherd crooks. The site of this historic workshop is today a parking lot.