Wednesday, December 1, 2010

A Pin Ball, the Perfect Lady's Accessory, 1770

Wednesday, December 1, 2010
Susan reporting:

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 downloads or in this book (also here), and replica silver rings can be ordered from the Mary Dickinson shop in Colonial Williamsburg (757-229-1000.)


Sandra Gulland. said...

Delightful post.

I've read that pin balls originated in the 17th century. Do you know if that's true?


Mme.Tresbeau said...

How charming, yet useful, too.

NeedleMiss said...

While most modern gals aren't about to hang a pin ball from their purse, the patterns do make cute Xmas ornaments. Easy to whip up, too.

Chris Woodyard said...

Sandra - In Antique Needlwork Tools and Embroideries by Nerylla Taunton, which starts with 17th century tools, there is an illustration of a blue velvet pin-ball in a circular silver frame with a vandyke edging. The maker's mark is "IA" with a crown and is dated c. 1680-85. That's the earliest I've seen. I wonder if they were at all inspired by 16th century pomanders.

Karen said...

I think "Pins and Pincushions" - - has some 17th century pincushions.

FWIW - more pinballs (and other 18th century pincushions) at -- and if you'd like to compare 'em, there's some 16th century pomanders at

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Many thanks to Karen and Chris for providing both answers and links!

I love the notion of pin-balls somehow evolving from pomanders. Based only on stylistic similarity, it does seem possible: small, pretty round objects swinging from the waist in a beguiling manner. Does anyone have any more definite to connect the two?

NeedleMiss, yes, modern needleworkers could certainly make very pretty Christmas ornaments from a pin-ball design. Perhaps you, too, have seen antique pin-balls misidentified as Christmas balls?

Thank you, Sandra and Mme. Tresbeau. Glad you enjoyed the post. :)

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

I've just been looking at the book that Karen linked to on Google books. Fascinating history of pins and pin cushions of every variety....

Chris Woodyard said...

Great links, Karen! I did not find any direct link between pomanders and pin-balls. The closest I got was (from Karen's link) in the News Years gifts to Queen Elizabeth 1561-2. "A little round mounte of golde to conteyne a pomaunder in it" given by Lady Margaret Strainge. I could see someone being inspired to put a pin-ball instead of a pomander into a round mount, but that is just sheer speculation.

Carla Gade said...

What a lovely post. I didn't know about these pin-balls. What a pretty and important piece.

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