The invention of the clothes peg is attributed to Jérémie Opdebec. Little else is known about him. This was not the clothes peg with a spring between two arms with which we are familiar today. Opdebec’s brainchild, dating from 1809, looked a bit like a molar, a single piece of wood carved to create a gap that could be wedged onto a line to hold clothes in place. My grandparents still used pegs like this. They were tough on clothes.
Opdebec’s simple idea provides a window on his world. Working in the early nineteenth century, he was responding to increased urbanisation and industrialisation, meaning that lines had to be strung between tenements for laundry to dry. Fresh air was becoming a luxury, as were the hedges and trees that had been used to dry clothes for as long as anyone remembered. In England, pegs were often whittled by members of the Romani community, who soon discovered that willow, a tree regarded as having healing and mystical properties, provided the best material. As a result, landowners removed willow trees to stop the unwanted Travellers hanging around. I imagine the willows were replanted when someone discovered they were also good for making cricket bats.
Embrace Australia’s finest writers: subscribe to Meanjin
Subscriptions start at just $5 a month — which goes directly towards our writers’ fees.