How much do you know about the history of pins? Exactly! Pin-making and the humble pin have an extremely important role in history. Before the time of zips, buttons or velcro, from say, 4000 years BC, you would secure your dignity with a pin made of bone, wood, stone or even a thorn. Ancient burial grounds revealed elaborate, hand-crafted pins, worn by the rich – to hold their clothes together and to brag about their wealth and status.
In the Middle Ages, pins from France were regularly imported to Britain and were favoured for their quality. This displeased Richard III, who in 1483 had a go at bolstering English pin-makers by banning French imports. Pretty much everyone ignored him and carried on using French pins.
In 1543, Henry VIII got interested in pins as well, this time passing a law on quality standards for pins: “No person shall put to sale any pynnes but only such as shall be double-headed and have all the heads soldered fast to the shanke of the pynnes, well smoothed, the shanke well sharpen, the point well and filed, canted and sharpened.” The Tudors held all kinds of garments together with pins, including the famous ruff, so good pins were vital. Pins were valuable too and were often listed alongside jewellery in inheritances. In those days, if a relative died and left you a set of pins, you’d have been genuinely thrilled. Expensive pins were taxed. The Revenue might say: “Ooh, nice pins,” before handing you a tax bill.
The expression ‘pin money’ came from another law which decreed that pins could only be sold in an open shop on two days in January each year. Ladies flocked to buy them using their ‘pin money’ – an allowance from their husbands or families. We’re obviously wondering how many ladies did actually buy pins and how many blew their allowance on something (anything)more interesting? When pins became more plentiful and cheaper, ladies did branch out and spent their pin money on clothing, fans, accessories, books, smelly soaps, lap dogs etc.
Pin-making was laborious work done by hand up to the 19th century. Hand pin-making started in earnest at the Lightpool ‘manufactory’ in Stroud, Gloucestershire which had around 1500 employees. The building below still exists but not as a factory. It really should be a heritage museum of pin-making with a lovely cafe but no one seems to have got round to that.
In 1828 mass production arrived with Daniel Foote Taylor’s patented pin-making machine which could manufacture quality pins in large numbers. All subsequent machines world-wide were based upon this British design. When machines took over, Birmingham became the centre of English pin-making.
The famous economist Adam Smith took a big interest in pin-making. In his famous, rather hard-going tome The Wealth of Nations, Smith shows how efficient a production line is, compared to a worker making one whole pin from start to finish. This is revolutionary stuff for the 18th century:
I have seen a small manufactory of this kind where ten men only were employed, and where some of them consequently performed two or three distinct operations. But though they were very poor …they could, when they exerted themselves, make among them about twelve pounds of pins in a day. Those ten persons, therefore, could make among them upwards of forty-eight thousand pins in a day. Each person, therefore, making a tenth part of forty-eight thousand pins, might be considered as making four thousand eight hundred pins in a day. But if they had all wrought separately and independently, and without any of them having been educated to this peculiar business, they certainly could not each of them have made twenty, perhaps not one pin in a day; that is, certainly, not the two hundred and fortieth, perhaps not the four thousand eight hundredth part of what they are at present capable of performing, in consequence of a proper division and combination of their different operations.
Fast forward to the Industrial Revolution and assembly lines are springing up everywhere for all kinds of products. People are becoming bored to tears at work, repetitively working on or two processes and saying at the end of the day: “Another busy day putting pins into tins, dear?”. The picture below is one of the most famous brands of dressmaking pins, made in Birmingham.
Pin-making was one of the many manufacturing industries that made Britain rich; hundreds of thousands of pins were exported all over the world. These days, some pins are still made in the United States but most pins come from Asia. Our pins we sell today are made in the Czech Republic. We also have twist and u shaped pins but that’s another story altogether!