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Schlumbohm/Chemex Scrapbooks, 1928-1979, bulk: 1939-1956

Accession: 2193Identifier: 2193-III.

Part of collection: Marc Harrison papers (2193)


  • Creation: 1928-1979
  • Creation: Majority of material found within 1939-1956

Biographical Note

Dr. Peter Schlumbohm (1896-1962) was an inventor who maintained control over the design, manufacture and marketing of his inventions. Although his main area of investigation was refrigeration, he was able to finance his work through the sale of consumer products, the most successful of which was the Chemex coffee maker.

Peter Schlumbohm was born on July 10, 1896, in Kiel, Germany, the son of a bourgeois chemical manufacturer and his artistic, freethinking wife. The parents appear to have contributed equally to their son's character formation. After graduating from the gymnasium, Schlumbohm was called to military service and, as an artillery captain, participated in the great battles of the Western Front, where he was badly wounded. This experience strengthened his hostility to military-type regimentation, conformity, and large, authoritarian institutions.

After returning home, Schlumbohm renounced his inheritance in the family chemical business and spent the years from 1919 to 1927 at the University of Berlin where, in addition to earning a Ph.D. in chemistry, he studied Gestalt psychology under one of its founders, Wolfgang Koehler. Thereafter, he pursued the course of an independent inventor, drifting from Kiel to Paris to London, eking out a modest living from the sale of patents while slowly amassing working capital to fund what he considered his major projects. His earliest work involved a color-correcting mirror and the manufacture of dry ice. Schlumbohm first visited the U.S. in 1931. Drawn by the advantages offered by the U.S. patent system, and repelled by Naziism, Schlumbohm permanently relocated to New York a few years later.

Schlumbohm's most famous and successful creation, the Chemex coffee maker, was exhibited at the New York World's Fair in 1939, and two years later he formed the Chemex Corporation to manufacture and market it. With its distinctive hourglass shape and throwaway paper filter, Schblumbohm boasted it would enable "even a moron to make good coffee."

Most of his subsequent inventions were less successful. Many had multiple uses (the Tempot could function as both a footbath and ice cream maker) and seemed specifically designed for Manhattanites who, like Schlumbohm, lived in cramped apartments and tenements. Schlumbohm often sold his products through New York department stores and received free publicity in the columns of New York-based publications such as "Esquire" and "The New Yorker." He was out of touch with and largely antipathetic to the larger American culture. Even in New York, he was often portrayed as a crank or eccentric.

Schlumbohm never claimed to be a designer as such, although he was supremely concerned about the appearance of all of his products. Rather, he considered himself a scientist and insisted upon a purely utilitarian approach to design. His creations usually had the functional simplicity of the chemical laboratory apparatus with which their author was intimately familiar and from which they were often directly derived.

Schlumbohm's work, therefore, is most closely allied with that of Modernist designers, particularly his contemporaries of the Bauhaus School, who adopted a stripped-down industrial or machine esthetic, although designers of all persuasions typically paid more attention to purely visual appeal. As a result, Schlumbohm's successful creations were often most prized as status objects by an urban elite, as typified by the Museum of Modern Art's endorsement of the Chemex coffee maker in 1942, and not the wider public for which they were created.

Peter Schlumbohm received patents for over 300 inventions, the last granted less than a month before he died in New York City on November 6, 1962.

Scope and Content

This series consists of papers created by Dr. Schlumbohm that were preserved by industrial designer Marc Harrison and included among his own papers. Harrison augmented the papers with additional clippings related to Schlumbohm and his own photographs of Schlumbohm's products during the 1970s. Most of the material remains in scrapbooks, although some has been removed and rehoused.

The scrapbooks contain correspondence, newspaper clippings, magazine articles, brochures, advertisements and photographs dealing with Schlumbohm's activities and products. The great majority of the pieces deal with the Chemex coffee maker, including rejection letters from companies that Schlumbohm tried to interest in manufacturing it, letters of endorsement from cartoonist Charles Addams, Lyndon Johnson, and Bess Truman, gift catalogs that included the Chemex, and photographs of the Chemex in the famous 1959 American kitchen exhibit in Moscow, scene of the "kitchen debate" between Nixon and Khrushchev.

Other products include the Chemobile, a radically simplified boxy compact car that was the antithesis of the low-slung, voluptuous American cars of the period, the "Mixarium" cocktail shaker, the "Fahrenheitor" wine or beer-bottle cooler, the "Pre-vue" color-correcting mirror, a German water pump, and mobile refrigeration units. There is also material dealing with Schlumbohm's work with dry ice, correspondence relating to Schlumbohm's patents, and candid photos of Schlumbohm and his friends.


2 Linear Feet

Language of Materials

From the Collection: English

Additional Description

Access Restrictions

No restrictions on access; this collection is open for research.

Related Names



Repository Details

Repository Details

Part of the Manuscripts and Archives Repository

PO Box 3630
Wilmington Delaware 19807 USA