Facts That Figure: Closets

Facts That Figure: Closets

By: C.G. Hoffman

What do we all have too much of? Stuff! Where do we put all our stuff? In closets! What do we do when our closets have too much stuff? We throw some stuff away. And what do we do then? We go out and buy more stuff!

Closets as we know them today are a relatively modern invention. The Romans are the first known people to have constructed specially-built wooden “armoriums” to store and transport their weapons and armor.

Before industrialization, clothing was expensive to produce, and most common people didn’t own too much more than the shirt on their backs. A peg on the wall sufficed for any extra garments that a common laborer would own.

During the Middle Ages, wealthier aristocrats favored clothes chests made of cedar wood, both for its fresh aroma and for being moth-repellent. Royalty, of course, could afford clothes made of silks and other expensive fabrics, with some elaborate gowns featuring inlaid pearls and precious gems. For such an extensive wardrobe a simple chest wouldn’t suffice, but entire rooms would be used for storing clothing, in what is perhaps the earliest version of a walk-in closet. At the time of her death, records show that Queen Elizabeth owned 2000 gowns (all handwoven and sewn!).

The armoire first started to be used by the French in the 1600’s. From simple wooden boxes, they soon evolved into elaborately carved, heavy pieces of furniture, and soon featured drawers and cabinets.

Europeans had been using freestanding armoires, or wardrobes, to store their clothes for hundreds of years. But the built-in closet concept was originally an American one, and is still not so common in Europe. As the Industrial Revolution paved the way for people to acquire more wealth, this also gave rise to a consumer culture, where shopping and constantly buying new goods became a hallmark of the rising middle class.

The first building to offer built in closets was the Dakota, built in the 1870’s in New York City. The developers hoped to attract wealthy tenants by offering closets that were six feet wide and two and a half feet deep. This was a novelty for its time, but is practically miniscule by today’s standards. Around this time, hanging rods started being built into closets. But how do you hang clothes on a rod? Enter the hanger!

The wire hanger is said to have been invented by a frustrated office worker, Albert J. Parkhouse, in 1903. Fed up with the lack of coat hooks at the office, he bent a wire into shape, and Voila! The wire hanger was born!

The end of World War II ushered in a new era of economic prosperity. Americans started moving out into the spacious suburbs, and the new, bigger houses now came with bigger, built in closets in every room.

Today’s closets seem to be in a heavy competition for over-the-top-ness. The biggest known closet in the world is in Texas, and clocks in at 3,000 square feet. A spiral staircase wounds through all three floors of this temple of extravagance, which cost over $500,000 to build.

Take Walmart, Target, 99¢ Stores and a glut of cheap products from China and combine it with Americans’ love for a good deal, and you get: clutter! Bigger closets aren’t always the solution for a disorganized home, and home organization has become big business. The industry has grown to $12 billion annually, and is expected to rise even more over the next few years.

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