Friday, November 20, 2009

Pins & Pinning

Friday, November 20, 2009
Susan reports:

The only time most modern people have any contact with a straight pin is trying to wrestle one free from the packaging of a new dress shirt. But to an 18th c. lady, the straight pin wasn't a nuisance.  It was a necessity.

Not only were pins used in sewing and mending, but they were also employed to fasten clothes together: a gentleman's neckcloth, the front bodice of a lady's gown (as shown in the detail, below right, of the gown seen here earlier this week), even a baby's diapers.  Pins were most commonly purchased in a milliner's shop (see Loretta's blog.)

The picture, above left, shows a selection of replica 18th c. pins: the smaller ones are for sewing, while the longer ones are "dressing pins."  
The dressing pins have the larger heads, formed
as the wire is twisted around the unsharpened end.  The gold-toned pins are made of brass, with the advantage that they did not rust; the silver-toned ones are steel, which holds a sharper point than the brass, but rusts.

Also in the above photo is a reproduction of an original paper packet that would have held two or three dozen pins. Henry Halles was one of the largest pin manufacturers in 18th c. England; the industry was centered in the London neighborhood of Whitechapel.

Pins were so essential to the 18th c. lady that the British trade embargoes against American colonists during the Revolution made their price skyrocket in Boston and other colonial cities. Ladies could live without tea.  Pins were quite another matter.  Abigail Adams famously wrote from Massachusetts to her husband John in London in 1775, begging him to "purchase me a bundle of pins & put them in your trunk for me. The cry for pins [in Boston] is so great, that what I used to buy for seven shillings and sixpence, are now twenty shillings, and not to be had for that."

Many thanks to tailor Mark Hutter of Colonial Williamsburg for both his pins, and his considerable knowledge. 


Ingrid said...

Oh, she's wearing a thimble! I love the way the curve of the pattern has been used in the bodice. Didn't notice all that in the bigger picture.

I remember from Gone with the Wind that there was the same lack of pins during the Civil War. Rhett Butler was a hero to the ladies because he smuggled pins.

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

I loved the thimble, too, Ingrid! Though considering how I made her get up from her work to pose for me, it makes sense.

I do wish Blogger would make pop-ups for all the pictures so you could see the details -- it will only do two a post, so I'm going to have to limit myself, or re-post them on my website when I have time..

FYI: Mantuamaker from Cairo posted the link to the original gown that this one was copied from:

Vanessa Kelly said...

That is such a beautiful dress!

This gives me a whole different take on lovemaking scenes in historical romance novels. It's one thing to get the heroine's gown off, but the hero better keep track of her pins if he wants to get her back in the gown!

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Vanessa, Loretta and I have discussed this exact subject -- dressing was such a complicated process for a lady that not many gentlemen would have wished to play lady's maid afterwards. We're guessing that in the heat of an impetuous moment, there was probably not nearly as much complete undressing as is written into historical romance novels. If a couple had the luxury of a whole night or a discreet hideaway, sure, but we doubt there was as much "getting naked" as modern readers might like. But who wants to keep track of dressing pins in the middle of a lovely fantasy? *g*

Anonymous said...

So...I wonder to what extent pins were coming loose and pricking an unsuspecting woman as she bent over to kiss her child, or reached for the teapot, or...?

And I bet pins were forever falling to the floor unnoticed, then being stepped on by the unwary.

Seems a painful way to live! :)

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Christine, they wore so many layers of clothing that the points of the pins were pretty well buried. But I'm betting there probably was the occasional yelp!

Things like this are all relative, too. We can't imagine wearing clothes with straight pins -- but I'm betting an 18th gentleman would take one look at the metal zipper on the fly of a pair of modern jeans and run screaming back to his carriage. :)

Loretta Chase said...

I asked the tailor specifically about getting stuck with pins. He pointed out that there's an art to using them--and this would be a lost art for modern day ladies & gentlemen. Losing pins was possible, certainly, and getting stuck was possible--if one dressed in a hurry, say, or was careless or clumsy--but not as frequent as we might imagine. But yes, the use of pins does help explain why so many naughty prints show the couples partially dressed.

Vanessa Kelly said...

The partially dressed thing makes perfect sense.

And, of course, one could write a scene where the hero could not get the heroine back in her gown in time to avoid getting compromised. That would be fun!

Ingrid said...

I once saw an exhibition about children's clothes in different kins of regional dress in the Netherlands. They showed taped interviews with people who had worn these clothes in childhood, and I remember a man (from Marken IIRC) who had grown up during the 1950's wearing skirts as a small child. He said that the boys would set their pins in such a way that other children would be pricked if they grabbed them while playing tag, or some such game.

Of late years I see many muslim girls in the city where I live using straight pins to attach their top headscarf to the bottom one, usually at the temples. If they have their hair in a bun at the back, they sometimes stick pins through scarf and hair. Some of them create wonderful contraptions that must take a long time every morning.

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Vanessa, I agree, sometimes the most accurate historical facts make for the most inspiring writing!

Ingrid, I live outside of Philadelphia, and at our local farmers' markets we often see Amish women in their traditional clothing; they, too, still pin their clothes. Interesting that the use of pins persists as part of religiously-determined dress.

The headresses of the Muslim women you describe sound fascinating.

Anonymous said...

Shameless plug, the reproduction pins pictured are made and sold by Burnley & Trowbridge Co. Great article!

Bludragon said...

so, dressing pins are the precursor to buttons? or were they still indispensable even after the advent of buttons?

Susan Holloway Scott said...

Bludragon - No, functional buttons and buttonholes first appear in the 13th century. In the 18thc, they're being used simultaneously with pins as closures. In fact, men's clothing in the 18thc is almost overwhelmed with buttons. They're used in long rows on a man's waistcoat and coat, and closing the front of his breeches as well. A well-dressed man could be wearing thirty or more buttons on his person!

Women's clothes, however, relied on pins as closures, and the only time you'll see buttons on 18thc women's clothing is when it's a garment inspired by masculine style, like a riding habit. Pins "worked" for women's clothing because they're endlessly adjustable, and could adapt on a day-to-day basis to a woman's changing figure (from pregnancy, or from monthly cycles) in a way that buttons and buttonholes couldn't. In the late 18thc-early 19thc, buttons and metal hooks & eyes gradually began to replace pins as closures in women's clothing, too, until pins finally vanished completely by mid-century.

Sarah Walsh said...

I respectfully submit the following correction - when Abigail Adams wrote to John asking him to send her pins, he was in Philadelphia, serving as Massachusetts delegate to the Second Continental Congress, not in London. I portray Abigail Adams as a living historian so that's why I noticed the error!!

Unknown said...

Any idea as to the wire gauge of the pins in the photo?

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