Hagley Museum & Library
Manuscripts & Archives Department
P.O. Box 3630
Wilmington, DE 19807-0630
71 linear feet
Thomas Lamb was a industrial designer most noted for his design of physiologically efficient handles. Thomas Lamb was born in New York City on September 18, 1896. From an early age he was interested in anatomy and physiology. His ambition was to become a doctor, but family financial difficulties forced him to drop out of high school. At the age of fourteen, Lamb began working afternoons in a textile design shop, and in the evenings he studied at the Art Students League while apprenticing himself to a plastic surgeon who taught him anatomy in exchange for doing medical drawings. At seventeen, Lamb opened his own textile design studio, specializing in advertising, fashion and magazine illustrations. His designs for beadspreads, napkins, handkerchiefs and draperies became very popular in the 1920s and were featured in many of the New York department stores, including Lord & Taylor, Macy's and Saks Fifth Avenue. In 1924 he began illustrating children's books, the most popular of which was "The Runaway Bunny." Shortly thereafter he signed a contract with "Good Housekeeping" magazine to illustrate a cartoon series called "Kiddyland." These became extremely popular, and Lamb soon began designing a line of Kiddyland textiles and packaging for soaps, talcum powder and other children's accessories. The Second World War was a major turning point in Lamb's career. He was determined to contribute to the war effort and did so with a line of Victory napkins and later with his Adolf the Pig, Hitler caricatured as a piggy bank that squealed when a coin was deposited to aid the anti-Nazi cause. However, the sight of wounded veterans stumbling or in pain from poorly-designed crutches turned him from the more frivolous work of his early career to the design of artifacts better adapted to human anatomy. Experimentation revealed that relieving pressure on the hand was the key to the problem, and this became the focus of Lamb's later work. Although Lamb's "Lim-Rest" crutch never reached manufacture, Lamb's patents for the wedge-lock handle and later universal handle were adapted to a wide range of products, including cutlery, surgical and dental tools, luggage and sports equipment. Lamb was convinced that the central problem was to reduce thumb fatigue, and he developed a handle that would allocate to each finger and muscle an appropriate portion of forces and work. By the late 1940s, Lamb was known as "The Handle Man." In 1948 his work was featured in a one-man show on functional design at the Museum of Modern Art, and this publicity led to contracts with the Aluminum Cooking Utensil Company for a line of Wear-Ever cookware and Cutco cutlery. Lamb's focus on designing for people of all abilities anticipated the Universal Design movement. Thomas Lamb died on February 2, 1988. The Thomas Lamb papers are arranged in two series. The first consists of business files and textual materials, the second of graphics and artifacts. The business papers document the full scope of Thomas Lamb's career and include client correspondence, notebooks, drawings, publicity files, personal writings, patents and publicity materials. Client files of particular interest include those relating to Lamb's contracts with Ellison & Spring, Lord & Taylor, Judson Mills, PARA Mfg. Co., the Lawton Company, Wear-Ever/Cutco and Good Housekeeping (Kiddyland). Products from his early career include draperies, napkins, tablecloths, shower curtains, floor coverings and the Kiddyland toys and cartoons. The Wear-Ever/Cutco materials are perhaps the most extensive and include contracts, correspondence and trade literature for the Lamb lines of cutlery and kitchenware. Much of the latter features women in poses and roles typical of 1950s advertising. Other products include surgical, dental and industrial equipment, luggage and sports equipment. The development of the Lim-Rest crutch and the universal handle are well described, including drawings and studies of the anatomy and physiology of the hand and its interaction with handles. The business papers also include magazine profiles of Lamb, files on the 1948 Museum of Modern Art show, childhood materials and notes from the 1920s, as well as autobiographical notes compiled in the 1970s and a eulogy by fellow designer Marc S. Harrison. There is also a group of writings from the 1940s that describe Lamb's ideas about the Second World War and foreign relations, including an unpublished essay, "A way to American security," 1941. The artifacts and graphics that were the primary output of Lamb's studio constitute the bulk of the records. They include mock-ups, molds, and casts in plaster, wax, clay and metal, as well as scrapbooks of graphics and two-dimensional representations. There is also a wide array of actual items or parts of items fitted with Lamb handles, including crutches, kitchenware, cutlery, luggage, dental and surgical instruments, tennis rackets, golf clubs, wood and metal-working tools, garden tools, hairbrushes, cigarette holders, knife sharpeners and vacuum cleaners.