A cultural history of the ubiquitous, unloved wire hanger.
If you are like many Americans, you likely own or have owned a small collection of the billions (with a b) of wire hangers that are consumed in the US every year. And, also like many Americans, you probably came to your stockpile unwittingly — largely through trips to the dry cleaner — and are familiar with the fit of frustration that comes from opening your closet to find these forgotten objects somehow entangled in a metal mare’s nest.
In the early 1990s, art dealer Frank Maresca had the unusual experience of such a collection being a sort of godsend. He needed a “throwaway show” for his New York City gallery — something simple and easy to occupy a fallow period on the calendar. His friend and artist-collector Harris Diamant offered an unexpected solution: his extensive reserve of vintage clothes hangers.
Maresca, whose Ricco/Maresca Gallery is known for showcasing contemporary outsider art, mounted one of Diamant’s wire hangers on the white gallery wall. Encouraged, he pinned up 169 more. Soon Maresca had an exhibit (“Out of the Closet: American Hangers”) and an accompanying write-up in the New York Times. “Stop laughing,” reporter N.R. Kleinfield told readers. Within a few days, thanks to, ahem, wire services picking up the story, the exhibit went the print-era equivalent of viral. Soon the office fax machine was spitting out messages until they flooded onto the floor. Daily foot traffic increased into the hundreds. The mailman dropped off entire canvas sacks of letters from citizens the world over who hoped to convert their own closets into cultural cachet and/or cash.
“The whole thing was funny,” Maresca says. “I mean, who ever gave a moment’s thought to a hanger?”
Therein lies the unusual status of the wire hanger: an inescapable part of modern life to which everyone can relate but no one pays much attention. A 2007 study by the US International Trade Commission estimated US consumption at 3.3 billion wire hangers annually, or nearly 11 per capita at the time — a figure that does not even account for the wire hangers often included with “floor-ready” garments imported from overseas, as long required by major retailers like Macy’s and Lord and Taylor. Upward of 80 percent of US wire hanger consumption comes via dry cleaners (uniform rental services comprise much of the rest), which employ wire hangers as a means of garment storage and transport so cost-effective they are included with their services.
It is wire hangers’ very ubiquity that may have helped damn them to dangle from the lowest rung on the hanger hierarchy. Of course, it doesn’t help that wire hangers are not particularly good at being hangers, often warping delicate garments that drape from them unevenly, nor that they are still the go-to symbol of illegal abortions in America’s pre-Roe dark days. Their most enduring pop culture moment came in a disturbing and class-conscious depiction of child abuse, when Faye Dunaway famously shrieked “NO… WIRE… HANGERS!” in the 1981 Joan Crawford biopic Mommie Dearest(surely undoing the goodwill engendered by Halloween’s closet scene three years earlier). No less an authority than the so-called Hanger King himself, industry magnate Bernie Spitz, once proclaimed that he would never sell them.
And yet wire hangers pioneered the form. It is commonly held, by those who commonly hold such things, that the hanger’s origins trace to an 1869 patent by a Connecticut man named O.A. North, who designed what he termed an “improvement in clothes-hook” made from “bent-metal rod or wire.” (This crediting is questionable: an 1852 patent for a shoulder-shaped metal wall hanger by fellow Connecticuter W.B. Olds clearly predates North’s, while other predating patents from 1867 and 1868 also more closely resemble modern hangers. If at least some of these were born independent of one another, it would suggest a fitting inevitability.)
It is no coincidence that this time of more obviously groundbreaking invention is what also produced the humble hanger. Not until the Industrial Revolution streamlined the manufacturing and shipping processes did most Americans even own enough garments to warrant considerable storage. Homes built in that era did not typically include closets; most Americans kept unworn clothes folded in chests or hung on wall-mounted rods. (Or, in the case of Thomas Jefferson, on a personal contraption dubbed a “turning-machine.”)
Once people had clothes, they soon had hangers, and once they had hangers they soon had them in excess. As far back as the 1960s, the Times was advising its readers on using wire hangers to construct bird feeders or a skillet to cook fish over a fire. Other extracurricular uses became more common: replacing or augmenting TV antennae, breaking into cars, rescuing misplaced keys and rings and baseballs from sewer grates. Wire hangers have even become a medium forartworks and accessory to a $900 Moschino dress mimicking dry cleaner packaging, while the internet’s DIY economy has reliably employed them as easy fodder for listicles and lifehack videos. The premise of these how-tos is familiar: Of course you have wire hangers and of course they are awaiting better use. They are, always, just sort of there.
When Milton Magnus III was a boy in Alabama, a friend asked what his father did. Magnus told his friend that his father, just like his father before him, manufactured and sold wire hangers. His friend was taken aback. In his childhood naivete, he had never considered that they were manufactured or sold at all. “Everybody doesn’t think about it until someone says, ‘I make hangers,’” Magnus says, “and then: ‘Oh my goodness, I guess somebody has to.’”
Magnus is now president of M&B Hangers, the company his grandfather, also named Milton Magnus, co-founded in 1943 after a local dry cleaner complained that the war effort’s steel consumption had led to a shortage of wire hangers. (The eldest Milton and his business partner, Roy Brekle, had previously been reselling used bottle caps to soda makers.) Magnus III had at first pursued a veterinary career until in college, he says, “chemistry and biology and I didn’t really agree.” He began loading M&B trucks during summer breaks and has been with the company since; his son, Milton IV, is now an M&B sales associate, the fourth generation in America’s preeminent wire hanger dynasty.
“We don’t worship them or anything like that,” says Magnus III, whose email signature touts M&B’s “unbending commitment.” “We just know that our livelihood depends on it.”
Not long ago, the Magnuses had more domestic company in the industry. As recently as the mid-2000s, the US boasted seven major wire hanger manufacturers; by the end of that decade, M&B was the last such company standing. (At least two others, Indy Hanger and U.S. Hanger Co., have since emerged.) In a common story of modern capitalism, the wire hanger industry’s contraction is tied to increased global competition. In the early 2000s, Chinese manufacturers began flooding the market with cheaper products — priced lower by an average of 30 percent compared to domestic hangers — that many feared were intended to drive out US competitors, a process known as “dumping.”
In 2007, M&B successfully petitioned the US International Trade Commission to issue a report recommending tariffs on Chinese imports. The ITC’s findings were stark: between 2005 and 2007, Chinese wire hanger imports had increased from one billion hangers annually to 2.7 billion, bringing their share of the US market up from 36 percent to 81 percent. At the same time, as stateside manufacturers folded, the domestic industry’s production capacity halved; during the course of the investigation alone, two US companies shuttered their factories and pivoted to importing.
The George W. Bush administration, which had declined such action in its first term, imposed tariffs on Chinese wire hanger imports. That drove up prices — an imported box of 500 lept from around $17.50 to nearly $40 — and triggered a rare wave of media attention concerning its potential effects on dry cleaners and their customers. Although, as Magnus III argued to NPR at the time, “If I pay $12.95 to have my suit cleaned and that hanger cost [the cleaner] a cent and a half more, that’s $12.96 and a half. It’s not a factor.”
A follow-up report from the ITC last year illustrated the tariffs’ effects. In 2018, just 25.9 million wire hangers were imported from China, or less than 1 percent of the pre-tariff total. Yet imports themselves still totaled a sizable 1.45 billion, and their shifting sources over the preceding decade had produced a game of regulatory whack-a-mole: There are now also Obama-era tariffs on hangers imported from Taiwan and Vietnam, where it was determined that Chinese products were being shipped and repackaged to evade US customs. In 2011, two Tijuana-based importers received jail time in California for similarly rebranding Chinese-made, US-bound hangers as products of Mexico.
Two years ago, a crackdown on one such fraudulent manufacturer in Southeast Asia disrupted the usual supply chain. Suddenly without a significant source, importers flooded legitimate makers with orders, creating months-long shipment backups. “It was panic time,” says Mike Ross, owner of Massachusetts-based dry cleaner supplier AristoCraft. Did prices go up as a result? “They did,” Ross says. “Not dramatically, though.” In other words, it’s unlikely anyone else noticed.
Despite their seeming disposability, discarding wire hangers can be complicated. One estimate from the US Department of Commerce puts the annual number deposited in landfills at 3.5 billion, which equates to nearly 200 million pounds of steel. There are ways to reduce consumption (many dry cleaners accept customers’ hangers for re-use, and companies like Pennsylvania’s Allied Services have collected, cleaned, and re-circulated millions) and ways to recycle (Magnus, whose company uses recycled steel to make its hangers, sells his extras to a scrap company). But doing so on a mass scale is difficult given that they are so often consumed incidentally and that their shape and coating can be problematic for the machines often used in mass recycling programs.
In an increasingly eco-conscious consumer culture, this has created an opening for competition. In the late 2000s, an entrepreneur named J.D. Schulman continued Connecticut’s tradition of hanger innovation by offering dry cleaners free biodegradable paper hangers emblazoned with corporate ads, but his company’s website is no longer online. At times, others have cropped up made from corn and wheat. Yet all have failed to displace the wire hanger for the same reasons that wood and plastic varieties are not your dry cleaner’s choice: Wire ones do the job as cheaply as possible.
Which is not to say that wire hangers are completely insulated from outside pressures. Beginning about 20 years ago, 18-inch hangers supplanted 16-inchers as the industry standard, in accordance with the American masses’ increasing masses. Around the same time, M&B debuted a more rounded “knit shirt hanger” for polos and the like, now one of three-dozen varieties (along with the Ultimate King Shirt Hanger and Extreme Ultimate Shirt Hanger) that can be ordered or, more entertainingly, viewed in 3-D animations on the company’s website. Among the industry’s biggest threats, says Magnus, are the Silicon Valley-driven trends of casual workplaces and working from home, which reduce the demand for dry cleaning and in turn wire hangers.
One unlikely place wire hangers have maintained their appeal is the well-appointed country residence of former D.C. Comics president Jenette Kahn (located, appropriately, in Connecticut). Kahn attended the Ricco/Maresca gallery show in 1991 and was reminded of the wire sculptures made by Alexander Calder. Smitten, she forked over a now-forgotten sum — according to the Times, a quarter of the collection was listed for $15,000 — in order to own them for herself.
Nearly three decades on, some two dozen hangers remain displayed on a white wall above a colorful Godley-Schwan sideboard, opposite Sandy Skoglund’s 1979 photo “Hangers.” “I’ve always been known for my very personal taste,” explains Kahn, whose decorative flourishes also include Jean Cocteau plates and works by Sots Art pioneers Komar and Melamid.
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