Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Welcome Little Stranger, 1770

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Isabella reporting,

While Loretta and I were off on our mini-breaks, we wallowed happily in Royal Baby madness like the rest of the world.  With our nerdy historical bent, this of course also led us to think of historical babies.

These little pincushions would have been made for new mothers in the 18th-19th centuries. Some historians believe that they would have served as a kind of birth announcement as well, to be hung on a door when the baby was born. More likely the pincushions were a thoughtful gift in a time when even baby clothes and diapers were fastened with straight pins, and pins were never far from reach. A few that survive were clearly well-used, while other examples were preserved as pristine little tokens.

In a way, these are pincushions times two. Not only could they serve for storing pins, but the decorative messages are made of pins, pushed deep into the cushion so the heads form the letters and design. The one, above, also features pins as a kind of fringed border. The background was often white silk, or fine linen or cotton, and a misplaced pin could not be moved without the hole showing in the fragile fabric. Like so much handwork of the time, patience and skill were required for a handsome result. (Please click on the images to enlarge for details.)

I've always found the messages in these little cushions quite touching. Today's parents can choose to know the gender of their new babies, but for 18th c. parents the new baby would be a complete surprise - truly a "little stranger." Later 19th c. layette pincushions are embroidered with more complex sayings and poems ("Bless the Babe and Save the Mother" is the sternly direct message on one from 1862.) One of my favorites from 1838 features a short poem.  It's sentimental, yes, but even the most no-nonsense modern parent can't argue with the good wishes:

   Angels guard thee, lovely blossom
   Hover round and shield from ill
   Crown thy parents' largest wishes
   And their fondest hopes fulfil.

Top: Layette pincushion, cotton with cotton fringe & pins. English, 1784. Victoria & Albert Museum.
Bottom: Pin cushion, silk, thread, pins. American, 1770. Winterthur Museum.


A Notebook for Eileen. said...

I've come across your Blog quite by chance. I'm not a great history lover but this really appeals to me with all the details of Royal births.
Well done.

scrapiana said...

That little pincushion at the top was included in a cabinet of smaller items in the V&A's Quilts 1700-2010 exhibition a few years back.

The catalogue entry for it stuck in my mind because it mentions that these little pincushions were traditionally given to new mothers, but after the birth; superstition held that gifting them sooner might increase the pangs of childbirth. 'For every pin a pain' and 'More pins, more pain' were commonplace sayings at the time.

I don't know if the catalogue is still available, but try to check it out: it's a lovely resource.

Karen Anne said...

You've probably covered this before, but I looked it up: the safety pin was patented in the U.S. in 1849, although there were older forms of it. I wonder how long it took to get into widespread use here and in Britain.

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Notebook for Eileen - glad you found us, one way or another!

Scrapiana - I found that reference to the pins & pain, too, which certainly puts an edge to a well-intended present! Wish I'd seen that exhibition, but I will keep an eye out for the catalogue. Here's the link to the V&A page:

While I was hunting around the internet for more examples, I did see this charming 1830s example currently for sale on eBay - tempting!

Karen Anne - I've read somewhere that though the patent for safety pins was 1849, they weren't widely manufactured & in common use until the 1870s. I'm sure many babies would agree that it was one of the great inventions of the 19th c. :)

GSGreatEscaper said...

I wonder how many of these still exist because the child for whom they were made and the mother to whom they were given died. One can imagine that they were preserved as a momento of a lost love, rather than used as a practical gift. Really, to me, these are objects of terrible sorrow.

A Notebook for Eileen. said...

I'm enjoying your blog and have added it to my list of favourites at

Flora said...

OMG I was looking at that very pincushion last week and never realised it was pins! It's part of the quilt exhibition from the V&A which is here in Brisbane (and if you are local, go to it!)

Sheri Cobb South said...

Wow! I assumed the messages were embroidery, until I looked at the images up close. Amazing!

BTW, I had my daughter in 1984, when ultrasounds were only done when there was a medical reason for it. After hearing for months from other women about how I was carrying the baby like a boy, I had a "little stranger" of my own!

Two Nerdy History Girls. Design by Pocket