Pins range from the simplest devices used by humanity to some of the most elaborately decorated ornaments. Thorns, bones, and other plant and animal materials have been used for making and fastening garments since Neolithic times. Sumerians used iron and bone pins 5000 years ago. Wealthy Egyptians wore straight bronze pins with decorated heads; by Greek and Roman times the fashion had changed to a clasp or fibula. Medieval pins ranged from simple pieces of wood to ivory and silver, and measured 2.5 to 6 inches. Paris was the center of medieval pin manufacturing; by the seventeenth century, though, pin making was the leading industry of Gloucester, England. Less valuable than needles, metal pins were small luxuries in early modern Europe; pin money was originally a bonus given to a merchant on concluding a deal, for his wife’s pins.
By the eighteenth century, pins were made with a division of labor that fascinated both Denis Diderot and Adam Smith because the specialization of workers was helping make a luxury affordable. Steel being too costly and difficult to work, brass wire was drawn at 60 feet per minute by a skilled specialist, then cut into lengths by other workers producing 4,200 pins an hour. Others then sharpened the points and made coiled brass into heads and affixed them, coated the pins with tin, and washed, dried, and polished them. A single worker going through all these stages would have been able to make only a handful of pins a day. Mechanized pin production began in Birmingham, England, in 1838. One of the most celebrated devices of antebellum America, John Howe’s 1841 pin machine made a breakthrough in automation by performing the entire sequence of unwinding wire, cutting, grinding, and polishing in a single rotational sequence. It even formed heads by compressing one end of the wire.
Pins were one of the first articles so effectively automated that the challenge shifted from production to packing-especially inserting the pins rapidly and safely in crimped paper cards-and marketing. The card display, developed by Howe, assured customers of the quality of metal, points, and heads. In 1900 U.S. residents used 60 million common pins, or about 126 per capita; old obstacles to working with steel had been overcome. By 1980, a Cambridge University economist estimated that productivity per worker in the British pin industry had increased 167-fold in 200 years.
Perhaps the greatest impact of abundant, cheap, high-quality pins packed in closed cases was on the culture of sewing. Pins no longer had to be protected from theft, loss, and rust. Through peddlers, they were available to every country household, and their profusion helped pincushions reach a decorative peak in the Victorian era. By the early twenty-first century, pins had lost most of their industrial importance; only in luxury production and in-home sewing were they still used to attach patterns to fabric.
See also Brooches and Pins; Needles; Safety Pins.
Andere, Mary. Old Needlework Boxes and Tools. New York: Drake Publications Ltd., 1971.
Gillispie, Charles C., ed. A Diderot Pictorial Encyclopedia of Trades and Industry. Volume 1. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1987. See plates 185-187.
Lubar, Steven. “Culture and Technological Design in the Nineteenth-century Pin Industry: John Howe and the Howe Manufacturing Company.” Technology and Culture 28, no. 2 (April 1987): 253-282.
Petroski, Henry. The Evolution of Useful Things. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992.
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