It's all well and good to admire elaborate silk gowns fit for a royal court, but often it's the everyday elements of historic dress that are much more evocative of the past. Eighteenth century English and American women gave as much thought to their accessories as their modern counterparts, and their choices of fans, caps, scarves, and gloves were the little touches that always personalize fashion. (So did gentlemen, who took considerable care choosing their own handkerchiefs, hats, snuff boxes, and even nutmeg graters.)
For many women from about 1750-1850, day dress would not be complete without a pin ball hanging at their waists from a hook or chatelaine. Pin balls were small, plump pin-cushions suspended from a ribbon or chain, and often framed with a ring of silver. Some were embroidered, others worked in cross stitch or needlepoint, and still others were knitted with fine-gauge steel needles. The designs could be as simple as the worker's initials and a few stylized flowers, or elaborate enough to contain a short maxim or endearment.
In an era when clothing worn by women and children and even babies' diapers was fastened with straight pins (more about pins and pinning here), a pin ball with pins was almost a necessity. But a pin ball was also a sign of the wearer's virtuous industry, and, when beautifully worked, her skill with a needle as well. Pin balls were popular gifts between friends and close relatives, too, a small, hand-worked token to be shared and treasured.
The pin ball shown here belongs to Janea Whitacre, mantua-maker of the Margaret Hunter shop in Colonial Williamsburg. She worked the design in counted cross stitches on linen, and hangs the pin ball conveniently from her waist (along with the key to the shop) from her chatelaine -– the silver hook engraved with her initials.
While it's unlikely that pin balls will make a comeback as a fashionable accessory along with an iPhone, they are still being created by skilled modern needleworkers as special tokens. If you're feeling ambitious, the designs are available as thoroughly modern downloadsor in this book (alsohere), and replica silver rings can be ordered from the Mary Dickinson shop in Colonial Williamsburg (757-229-1000.)
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.