by Cas Middlemas
In Australia the use of rotary clothes hoists to dry laundry outdoors is so well-established that many consider this piece of backyard equipment a part of our cultural history, to the point that it has developed an iconic status. The clothes hoist was used in the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games ceremony and has been prominent at a number of festivals. It is amazing to think that this structure – for drying clothes – has been represented in the arts, including paintings, sculptures, poems and cartoons. Many Australians would believe the rotary clothes hoist was invented here in the early twentieth century, however research has shown that a number of sophisticated clothes hoist patents were being granted in the United States of America as early as the 1850s.
In putting together a book on the origins of the all-metal rotary clothes hoist in Australia entitled Hung Out to Dry: Gilbert Toyne’s classic Australian clothes hoist, Peter Cuffley, my co-author, and I found numerous American patents that predated those in our own country. This article provides the reader with a very brief overview of the diversity and initiative shown by Americans in the mid 1800s when it came to the challenges of drying laundry. American designs were not the focus of Hung Out to Dry, but we did include several of the significant American patents in our book. Due to the ease of accessing American patent information via the internet at the United States Patent and Trademark Office website this was a simple task compared to finding early Australian patents.
In our book we focused on a specific design used to dry laundry outdoors known as the rotary clothes hoist. These models have a central pole with a four-armed frame supporting the lines, on which the washing is pegged. The arms rotate, but can also be raised up or hoisted up to allow the washing to catch the breeze for drying. It appears the term ‘rotary clothes hoist’ was first used in Australia. An early American model found in the Scientific American issue of August 1851 was ‘Dickey’s patent clothes drying machine’. This was a rotary clothes ‘dryer’ and could not hoist the laundry up high once it was pegged on. A letter in the next issue of Scientific American shows this was certainly not the first interest in improving the way laundry was dried. Mr Dickey’s clothes dryer was not a new patent, the writer commented, it had already been invented by an ingenious mechanic in Worcester, Massachusetts, and ‘hundreds of them have been in use hereabouts for the last three years.’
It was a few years later in Sutton, New Hampshire, that a fine model of a rotary clothes hoist patent was lodged by carpenter Stephen Woodward in 1854. Along with two other associates, Joseph Nelson, another carpenter, and A. C. Carroll, a merchant, Woodward sought to improve the methods that were currently employed in the drying of laundry. Mr Carroll was presumably on the team to help with marketing the product. Stephen Woodward’s design allowed the washing to be elevated so high off the ground that a person could pass directly underneath the drying laundry without coming into contact with it. This elevation also enabled better exposure of washing to the wind.
Stephen Woodward was not the only inventor working to improve the rotary clothes hoist design. The February 1855 issue of Scientific American contained an illustration and detailed description of a ‘Clothes Drying Machine’ invented by James Higgins of Indiana. A 28 year-old with twin daughters and three other children there can be little doubt that the washing his family generated inspired the need for this invention. Rather than elevating the clothes lines using the mechanism employed by Woodward (which was a rack-and-pinion system) Higgins employed a crank and winding drum (windlass). As we discovered, while researching Australian rotary clothes hoists, the general public have been extremely persistent in correcting false claims in the media about who invented it. So it was interesting to find another reader, this time from New York, who wrote to the Scientific American suggesting that this was not a new invention. He commented that ‘the same thing has been in use, and is already secured by patent’.
It was however the design of John Mullowney, of Pittsburg in the State of Pennsylvania, that really caught our eye as researchers. He developed a remarkably simple and elegant drying device. His patent design of 1871 differed from the Woodward and Higgins’ designs, which raised the rotating clothes line frame up a fixed central post. Mullowney’s ‘clothes-drier’, with a rack-and-pinion winding mechanism, had a hollow central pole which contained an inner post with the clothes line frame attached. Once the washing was pegged onto the clothes lines then the internal post and lines could be raised as one unit.
It was the use of an internal post with clothes line frame attached that would define Australian rotary clothes hoist design in the twentieth century. It is a ubiquitous piece of garden machinery in Australian backyards.
The advantages of the rotary clothes hoists from the other earlier clothes lines, which consisted of a long cord stung between two fixed posts, are numerous. Early American inventors were keen to promote these advantages. ‘In winter no person is required to wade through the snow to fix the clothes as it can be set on any walk’. The rotary clothes hoist allowed one to stay in one place and hang all the clothes on the line without having to move a basket of heavy, wet laundry along the lines. The large number of lines also allowed a lot of washing to be hung out at one time, as emphasised in 1859. It enabled ‘the laundress to stand in one place and hang out 75 or 100 pieces of clothing without going from the crank’. Then by raising the clothes lines ‘12-16 feet high’ the sun, air and wind could assist with drying. As the clothes revolved in the wind it saved wear and tear on items which was common to those on a fixed line. One patent claimant suggested that the savings made from wear and tear of items would pay for the clothes hoist.
The manufacturing success or otherwise of the American models mentioned above is unknown. However, it may have been Joseph Phillips Hill, a civil war veteran from Barre in Vermont, who began the fashion for Americans to use indoor dryers. He did initially begin with the very successful manufacture of outdoor clothes dryers in 1867 and went on to develop his own patented design known as the Hill’s Champion Lawn Clothes Dryer which he began marketing in 1874. In order to expand the business he moved to Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1876. Over the next two decades he continued to improve his situation until the clothes hoist manufacturing business had grown to include an extensive factory in Park Avenue, Worcester, with associated offices in New York. The Hill Dryer Company manufactured and marketed other products but it was reputed they sold over a million clothes driers. During the early 1900s Hill was selling laundry clothes dryers that were heated by stove, steam or gas. ‘The heating and ventilation of this laundry dryer are such that the clothes can be dried in a strictly sanitary manner in 20 to 30 minutes.’ It is feasible that the promotion of this means of indoor drying was seen to be more hygienic than hanging clothes outside and also quicker.
A wonderful array of rotary clothes hoist designs can be uncovered in the records found on the United States Patent and Trademark Office website. Inventor Dana Lovejoy in 1876 designed one with four outstretched arms that were collapsible when not in use and there were similar styles by Joseph Fleck in 1886, William Curtis in 1890 and William Kester in 1903. There were amazingly detailed models such as David Dickson’s Clothes-drier of 1888 and another novel variation in 1894 was designed by Robert Douglas and John Austin of Detroit, Michigan. Here they combine a wagon wheel type frame that when washday was over could be utilised as play equipment for the children, as a swing or rotating merry-go-round. It was also furnished with an awning of tent cloth that could serve to protect clothes if it was raining but also be a pleasant shade cover when laundry was removed.
The development of early clothes drying apparatus in the United States is not widely known. Like Australia the weather in many regions of America is perfect for outdoor clothes drying. It is hoped that this article might inspire further research and encourage the use of rotary clothes hoist in your country.
Cas Middlemis & Peter Cuffley
Hung Out to Dry: Gilbert Toyne’s classic Australian clothes hoist
If you are keen to view images of some of rotary clothes hoists discussed in this article follow the links below:
Stephen Woodward’s patent drawing can be viewed on <http://patft.uspto.gov/netahtml/PTO/srchnum.htm> Go to the ‘Query’ box and type in 11985
To view James Higgins design see <http://dlxs2.library.cornell.edu/cgi/t/text/pageviewer-idx?c=scia;cc=scia;xc=1;idno=scia0010-23;g=moagrp;q1=clothes drying machine;node=scia0010-23:1;size=S;frm=frameset;seq=184>
John Mullowney’s patent drawing can be viewed on <http://patft.uspto.gov/netahtml/PTO/srchnum.htm> Go to the ‘Query’ box and type in 116081
William Kester’s patent drawing can be viewed on <http://patft.uspto.gov/netahtml/PTO/srchnum.htm> Go to the ‘Query’ box and type in 736603
David Dickson’s patent drawing can be viewed on <http://patft.uspto.gov/netahtml/PTO/srchnum.htm> Go to the ‘Query’ box and type in 387345
Robert Douglas and John Austin’s patent drawing can be viewed on <http://patft.uspto.gov/netahtml/PTO/srchnum.htm> Go to the ‘Query’ box and type in 519178