Thomas Lamb papersCreation: 1916-1988
Thomas Lamb (1896-1988) was an industrial designer most noted for his design of physiologically efficient handles. His papers contain drawings, sketches, and artifacts pertaining to Lamb's career, which trace the development of his unique handle design, as well as his pursuits in the fields of textiles, cartoons, and writing, particularly for children.
- Creation: 1916-1988
- Lamb, Thomas, 1896-1988 (Person)
71 Linear Feet
Thomas Lamb (1896-1988) was an 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 abandon this path. At the age of fourteen, Thomas Lamb began working afternoons in a textile design shop. On the weekends he apprenticed himself to a plastic surgeon, doing medical drawings in exchange for anatomy lessons. In the evenings he studied figure drawing and painting at the Arts Student League. Lamb also studied merchandising at Columbia University. The combination of anatomy, art, and business was integral to Thomas Lamb as a designer.
At seventeen, Thomas Lamb opened his own textile design firm, specializing in advertising, fashion, and magazine illustration. His bedspreads, napkins, 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 Runaway Rhymes. Lamb also wrote and illustrated The Tale of Bing-O, which was published by the P. F. Volland Company in 1927. Shortly after his success with Runaway Rhymes, Lamb signed a contract with Good Housekeeping magazine to illustrate a series of Kiddyland cartoons. These became extremely popular and Thomas Lamb soon began designing a line of Kiddyland textiles, soaps, talcum powder, and other children's accessories. There was even a Kiddiegram designed for Western Union and endorsed by Shirley Temple Black (1928-2014).
The Second World War was a major watershed for Thomas Lamb. Like many of his contemporary designers he began to decry the worst excess of over designing that characterized the interwar years. He was determined to contribute to the war effort and he did so with a line of Victory Napkins and later with his piggy bank "Adolph the Pig." "Adolph the Pig" was a popular item. Emblazoned with "For Victory Make Him Squeal," the bank actually squealed when a coin was deposited. People were encouraged to use the saved change to buy war bonds.
As he watched returning veterans with disabilities stumble and fall while using crutches, Lamb was inspired to begin work on designing a new crutch armrest, but soon discovered that the hand bore the main burden of the physical problem. Lamb began experimenting with a crutch handle or hand grip that would redistribute pressure in such a way as to make it easier to navigate with a crutch. 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 distribution of forces and work. After spending tens of thousands of hours studying medical textbooks and the hand, he developed his Lamb Lim Rest crutch. Even though the Lamb Lim Rest never reached manufacture, the landmark patents that he developed for the wedge-lock, and later universal handle, were adapted to cookware, cutlery, surgical tools, luggage, sports equipment, and industrial equipment.
By the late 1940s Thomas 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. This publicity led to contracts to produce a line of cutlery for Cutco and cookware for Wear-Ever. For the rest of his life Thomas Lamb concentrated on designing products that would relieve pressure on the hand. His focus on designing for people of all abilities anticipated the Universal Design movement.
Thomas Lamb died on February 2, 1988 at ninety-one years of age.
Scope and Content
This collection contains papers, drawings, sketches, and artifacts pertaining to the career of industrial designer Thomas Lamb (1896-1988). These papers trace the development of Lamb's unique handle design, as well as his pursuits in the fields of textiles, cartoons, and writing, particularly for children. A wide variety of textile design (in scrapbooks, paintings, and products) is represented throughout the collection. The Kiddyland materials provide a look into Lamb's lighter side as well as his methods of inspiration. By far the largest amount of material is dedicated to Lamb's physiological and anatomical research on the hand as well as the handles he created to maximize their power.
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 (1936-1998). 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.
Existence and Location of Copies
View selected items online in the Hagley Digital Archives.
No restrictions on access; this collection is open for research.
Language of Materials
The Museum Division of Hagley Library and Museum houses a variety of textiles from the Thomas Lamb papers. The accession number for the Museum collection is T98.23.
Finding Aid & Administrative Information
- Thomas Lamb papers
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