Tuesday, July 21, 2015

From the Archives: As Used by Jane Austen: Pins, the Regency Post-It

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Since so many of our readers are new (and this blog is nearly six years old!) Loretta and I have agreed to dip into our archives for our posts this week. Sometimes something old can be new!

Isabella reporting,

I've written before about the importance of pins in everyday 18th c. life. Straight pins were widely used to fasten all kinds of clothing, from women's bodices to infant's diapers, and also used in hand sewing. Pins were considered so indispensable that when Abigail Adams wrote from colonial Massachusetts to her husband John Adams in Philadelphia in 1775, the one thing she requested was for him to "purchase me a bundle of pins and put in your trunk for me." (Read the rest of the letter here.)

Pins for clothing and sewing, yes. But I hadn't realized that pins were also an essential tool for 18th c. writers. Thanks to (or cursed by, depending on your point of view) computers, most modern writers submit manuscripts electronically. Rewrites and copy edits are all conducted now through the magic of track changes and transmissions. Gone are the days of hauling manuscript boxes to the post office, not to mention pages that bristled with pink "flags", the comments and queries pasted to the edges of pages by editors. I've gotten to the point where the only words on paper I see in the entire process are in the finished book – and the way things are going, that may soon vanish, too.

But what did writers do in the days before paper clips and Post-Its? How did an early novelist who was already struggling to make sense of a handwritten manuscript mark revisions and additions? According to the librarians of Oxford's Bodleian Library, the answer is pins – and lots of them. All those notes and insertions and extra copy were handwritten on scraps of paper and pinned in the margin with a straight pin. The pins, above, were all plucked from the library's holdings, and date from 1692 to 1853.

In 2011, the Bodleian acquired a true Jane Austen rarity: the manuscript draft of her abandoned novel, The Watsons. (See here for more about the auction and the staggering realized price, as well as a page of the manuscript itself.) In addition to the clues to cross-outs and rewrites on the draft provide, there were also a wealth of pinned-on additions. For purposes of preserving the manuscript, these pins were carefully removed with their notes, studied, catalogued, and saved – a librarian's scholarly labor of love.

But as a fellow-writer, I like to imagine Jane at work at her small writing table. I wonder: did she use the same pins she used for her clothing, or did she have another stash of pins reserved for writing? Did she keep a pin cushion on the table with a stack of scrap-paper sheets beside her inkwell, prepared and ready to make changes? Or did she tuck them into her sleeve like a hurried seamstress might, keeping them literally at hand when she needed them?

Here is the link to the original article about literary pinning by Christopher Fletcher, Keeper of Special Collections at the Bodleian Library. Thanks to Deb Barnum for first sharing this story with us. 

Above: Manuscript pins, c. 1690-1850. Bodleian Library.


Janet Wedge said...

John Adams was not in London; he was in Philadelphia.

Cynthia Lambert said...

Gives an added historic dimension to Pinterest...

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Oh, Janet, how right you are - I should've known better. Thank you, and now corrected.

Winona Cross said...

Love it!

MrBaskerville said...

Fascinating! How quickly we forget (well, I do) that everything was written on paper. I wonder if pre-computer writers were a lot more disciplined in mentally constructing every sentence, taking pains over every word, rather than trying things out happy in the knowledge that we can press delete, or can cut and paste?

Lutheranliar said...

Fascinating! Thank you for reposting this. I am one of your readers who would have missed it otherwise.

Sherry B. said...

Love it! Thanks for the re-sharing of history.

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