Tuesday, June 5, 2018

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

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Susan reporting,

Another oldie but goodie from the archives....

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.


Yve said...

The whole of the infamous Pendle Witch Trails in Lancashire started with a Pin! Alizon Device saw a peddlar called John Law walking along a hillside and asked him for some pins, it's unclear if she was begging or meant to buy them, but he refused to let her have any because it was popularly held that metal pins were used in Witchcraft to treat warts (a sign of the devil!) and in divination. Device's grandmother was rumoured locally to be a Witch, which also coloured his reluctance. Law was hit by some kind of seizure some time after this trifling incident and so a simple request for some pins lead to the biggest Witch Trail in Britain and the death of 11 people. Ten were hanged and the eldest accused, Device's grandmother, died in the cells while awaiting trail.

Diana said...

Straight pins were used before staples.
You can still buy Bank pins, and that is what I use for my pinner apron and my short gowns.

Sandy Nesteriak said...

Check out ConnecticutHistory.org | a CTHumanities program (John Howe makes a better pin machine). It was said that a pound of pins was worth a pound of gold and he invented the machine that stuck them in paper. Love your blog, by the way.


Sandy Nesteriak
Shelton, Ctaa

Susan Holloway Scott said...

Sandy - This is fascinating - I had no idea! The entire blog is full of wonderful nerdy-history posts. Thanks so much for sharing! ~ Susan

Lucy said...

I just have to say, thank you for this post! Of course, it's so perfectly logical--no tape, no paper clips--but I would never have thought of it in years. Now I've got to put this in a novel somewhere.... Though I do wonder about rust. Pins rust terribly over time. One imagines it would leave the pages well marked.

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