Some historians believe President Thomas Jefferson invented a forerunner of the wooden clothes hanger. However, today's most used hanger, the shoulder-shaped wire hanger, was inspired by a coat hook that was invented in 1869 by O. A. North of New Britain, Connecticut. An employee of the Timberlake Wire and Novelty Company, Albert J. Parkhouse of Jackson, Michigan has also been credited with the invention, as has Christopher Cann in 1876 as an engineering student at Boston University.
In 1906 Meyer May, a men's clothier of Grand Rapids, Michigan, became the first retailer to display his wares on his wishbone-inspired hangers. Some of these original hangers can be seen at the Frank Lloyd Wright designed Meyer May House in Grand Rapids.
In 1932 Schuyler C. Hulett patented an improved design, which used cardboard tubes mounted on the upper and lower parts of the wire to prevent wrinkles, and in 1935 Elmer D. Rogers added a tube on the lower bar, which is still used.
Hangers can be made in wood, wire, plastic, rarely from rubber substance and other materials. Some are padded with fine materials, such as satin, for expensive clothes, lingerie and fancy dresses. The soft, plush padding is intended to protect garments from shoulder dents that wire hangers may make. A caped hanger is an inexpensive wire clothing hanger covered in paper. Caped hangers are used by dry cleaners to protect garments after cleaning.
A wire clothes hanger was also a featured prop in a central scene in the 1981 movie Mommie Dearest, in which Joan Crawford, played by Faye Dunaway, enters the room of her daughter, Christina, at night while the girl sleeps, to admire the beautiful clothes hanging nicely in her closet. She then becomes enraged upon discovering that Christina has used a wire hanger, instead of the expensive padded hangers Joan provided and instructed the girl to use. Joan wakes her daughter and gives her a thrashing. Joan's fierce cry of "No wire hangers, ever!" quickly worked its way into pop culture. Wire clothes hangers play a prominent part in the 2008 movie Birdemic: Shock and Terror. During a key scene in this "Romantic thriller" directed by James Nguyen, four terrified characters defend themselves against bloodthirsty hawks and vultures by waving wire hangers over their heads in the parking lot of a San Francisco Bay Area Motel 6.
Wire is versatile, and wire clothes hangers are often used as cheap sources of semi-tough wire, more available than baling wire for all sorts of home projects. The use of wire clothes hangers for use as makeshift welding rod has been common for nearly 100 years. Similarly, many similar do-it-yourself and children's projects use wire hangers as holders of various types, from keeping a brake caliper from hanging by the brake line during auto repair work, to securing a gate on a bird cage. After sanding, wire hangers also find uses as conducting wire for uses as varied as hot wiring cars to games to testing hand steadiness. They were commonly used to gain forcible entry into 20th century automobiles whose locks and entry systems are not protected from such methods. And there is a long history of using wire coat hangers as replacement car radio antennas.
Collecticus magazine reported in October 2007 that clothes hangers have now become collectible, especially those with a famous company or event advertised across the front. For example, a 1950 Butlins hanger sold for £10.10 in October 2006 within Collecticus.In 1995, Professor Angus Wallace used an unfolded coathanger, sterilised with brandy, to perform emergency surgery on the collapsed lung of Paula Dixon in an airliner at 35,000 feet.