I'd like to know if "patent cabinets" in the Chapter 5 of The Great Gatsby refers to cabinets fabricated by William S. Wooton, who designed and patented the desks his factory produced.
"Recovering himself in a minute he opened for us two hulking patent cabinets which held his massed suits and dressing gowns and ties, and his shirts piled like bricks in stacks a dozen high."
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Based upon the product catalogue Wooton issued in 1876, it is not likely that "patent cabinets" refers to cabinets under the Wooton patent.
The cabinets made by Wooton were "secretaries" and "desk." Secretary cabinets were characterized by opening doors, a drop-down writing surface and myriad small storage compartments. The link (in this text and below) shows you the 1876 Wooton product catalogue, and these secretaries are illustrated for you.
In addition to secretaries, Wooton produced desks that were designed according to the same elaborate scheme of writing surface and myriad storage compartments.
As you'll see if you look at the illustrations in the catalogue, these storage compartments were for the most part what we would call cubbyholes, which were not large enough for the storage of men's shirts "piled like bricks." Woonton's idea of design certainly left no space for "massed suits and dressing gowns." There are one or two "Ordinary Grade" or "Superior Grade" secretaries that have spaces large enough to accommodate a collection of folded men's clothing, like folded shirts, yet none provide space for suits or dressing gowns.
While it is possible that Wooton expanded his line to included clothing cabinets with spaces similar to those in a chifforobe, the information immediately at hand does not indicate such an expansion in his line. Thus based upon the information available for the 1876 Wooton product line, Gatsby's "patent cabinet" was probably not a Wooton. Yet, this does not exclude the possibility of an expansion of the line after the 1876 catalogue publication, though Wooton gave up manufacturing in 1884 to become a preacher and died in 1907.
but what is the meaning of "patent" in this case?
Gatsby's patent cabinet may have been a Compactom gentleman's wardrobe made in England. These wardrobes were a patented design, hence the phrase "patent cabinet."
These wardrobes, unlike the Wooton desks, had space to hang suits, and they also had fold-out tie racks. Houses did not have "closets" back in the day, so clothing was kept in furniture. Gatsby's gentleman's wardrobe would have appeased his desire to showcase the clothing that served as a status symbol for him. It embodies the conspicuous consumption displayed in the book. It also would have fulfilled his desire to hold the appearance of a tidy and orderly life in those rapidly changing times.
Gatsby says, "I've got a man in England who buys me clothes. He sends over a selection of things at the beginning of each season, spring and fall." Perhaps his haberdasher also provided the patent cabinets. Some of these were traveling wardrobes.
Did you see the Baz Lurmann version of The Great Gatsby? A winding staircase from Gatsby's bedroom leads to his "closet." These are not like the Compactom gentleman's wardrobe I mentioned that might be referred to in the text, but they do show numerous shelves and stacks of neatly folded shirts.
Thank you for the interesting question. Students have teased my teaching colleague and I for talking about Jay Gatsby in the halls as though he were a real person rather than a character in a book. That's how I feel today discussing what his patent cabinets might have looked like. I have read the book many times, and I appreciate that you have pointed out an interesting aspect that I hadn't previously paused to consider.
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