Reinventing the wheel

What to call a clothesline that’s not linear?


Photo: Jemtland AS, Gjøvik
The Norwegian tørkestativ in its natural habitat.

M. Michael Brady
Asker, Norway

The ubiquitous Norwegian tørkestativ might have had another name. In principle, it functions as does the traditional fiskehjell (fish flake), a rack for drying fish that takes its name from the Old Norse hjallr. But the etymology of the tørkestativ didn’t happen that way. It didn’t descend from Old Norse, but owes its invention as well as its name to an annoyed man and a snowstorm of about 1913 in Iowa.

Each time it snowed in winter, the man, Joseph B. Clay, dutifully shoveled snow from underneath the home’s outdoor clothesline, on which newly washed clothes were hung to dry. After one particularly heavy, wet snowstorm, he decided to try to find a way of wintertime access to a long clothesline without the drudgery of shoveling its length. He invented what’s now called the “umbrella-style rotating clothesline,” in which the line is stretched at several levels between wooden or metal arms that radiate out from a central supporting pole. He patented the invention on Dec. 14, 1915. Soon thereafter the Clay Clothes Drier was in production and subsequently renamed the Sunshine Clothesline.

The design concept of a clothesline curled up around a single supporting pole spread. In the early 1950s in Norway, Jemtland, a metal building materials producer, began producing and selling its version of the umbrella clothes dryer. Descriptively named tørkeestativ (literally: “drying frame”), it is still in production (pictured here). Elsewhere, similar designs emerged, often adapted to local conditions. In Japan, a compact version for fitting on a balcony or veranda railing was called a “carousel dryer,” by analogy with a baggage carousel in an airport.

The idea of curling up a clothesline to save space apparently occurred to others around the globe. After returning from World War II to the town of Glenunga near Adelaide in the state of South Australia, Lance Hill was asked by his wife to find a way to replace the family clothesline, on which space for drying clothes was limited by a growing lemon tree. Hill set about the task and devised a “Rotary clothes drying rack” that could be raised and lowered using a windup mechanism. He called it the “Hills Hoist,” and production of it began in 1947. It was an immediate hit; sales boomed, and the company expanded. By 1994 some 5 million Hills Hoists had been sold. But that’s another story.

Originally published in Norwegian on the Clue dictionaries blog at

This article originally appeared in the June 1, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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M. Michael Brady

M. Michael Brady was born, raised, and educated as a scientist in the United States. After relocating to the Oslo area, he turned to writing and translating. In Norway, he is now classified as a bilingual dual national.