If you have a nose for rabbit trails, even the simplest search can make you lose your way – if not your head! I was trying to pinpoint a date for the common use of machine-made pins, but ended up following the trail from factories to inventories to short stories. The stories were the most fun, and I thought I’d share this (edited for length!) one.
THE HISTORY OF A PIN.
(The Portland Transcript, 1863)
BY EDWARD P. WILSON.
“Est natura hominum novitalis avida.” [People crave new stuff.]
While walking down the street other day, something bright, embedded in the dirt between the bricks, attracted my attention; and stooping I extracted from the sand an old headless pin. It was not one of the family of pins with which we are now familiar – pins never lose their heads now a days – but one of the old style, whose head was originally formed of fine coiled brass wire; but now it was headless, crooked, rusty and worn: one of those sort of pins which in my school-boy days we were wont to call “old maids’ pins,” and which every single lady felt in duty bound, on the penalty of endless celibacy, to throw over her left shoulder.
As I sat in my arm-chair after dinner enjoying my cigar, I drew it leisurely from the lapel of my coat – a bachelor’s invariable pin cushion – and examined it more minutely. What would I give to hear the history of this old pin!
As I continued to smoke, the pin seemed to grow strangely bright, as seen through the incense which curled around me; and then it seemed to increase in size until it resembled some old, sallow man, whose back was bent by the cares and sorrows of three-score years, who stood twinkling at me through the smoky vapor; and at length I became so accustomed to regard it as human, that I was not surprised when it addressed me as follows:
“Many years have passed away since I was young and bright. I remember the day, when by a clip of a huge pair of shears, I first received a distinctive existence. Pins were worth something in those days, and were not turned out upon the world by machinery, as they are now in Connecticut, at the rate of ten tons per week. We were all made elaborately by hand, going through fourteen different processes in our construction. It was in the old Greenwich Prison, New York, where the first pins were made on this continent. We were all nicely arranged by hand in our papers, like files of soldiers. Fortunately for me, I occupied the position of captain in the first row of my paper, and stood the best chance of being soonest called into the active duties of life. After being duly packed, we were removed to a little store on Broadway, near Castle Garden. I well remember the looks of my first master. He was a little wizen-faced man, who kept a small variety store in those days.
Many long months I laid upon his dark shelves, fearing that I should spend my days in rest and inaction. But at length my days of imprisonment were over. One day a young woman came into my master’s store and made several small purchases of ribbon and edging, and just as she had started to go out, she turned back and asked for a paper of pins. How I thrilled with joy as my master placed the paper in which I had been so long imprisoned in her hand.
My young mistress took me to her home on one of the short streets in the vicinity of the East River. I had scarcely entered the house, which was a neat tenement of the Dutch style, before I became convinced that preparations were being made for some great event in the household. Judge of my surprise when I ascertained by the gossip of the servants that it was the marriage of my young mistress.
All day the household was in commotion, in baking, dusting, and arranging for the happy occasion; and when in the evening my mistress came to her room where I had been lying upon her dressing table, to put on her wedding dress, I was made happy by being called into service. Having otherwise completed her attire, which was elaborate for those days, although it might provoke the mirth of the fashionable belle of the present day, she took from her drawer a beautiful silk zone or belt, which she clasped around her waist, and fastened it with me.
As she stood before her glass to adjust her dress before making her appearance in the drawing room below, I could not help feeling a silent pride in her beauty. I had not thought her pretty when I had first seen her, but as she stood there, I could not but pronounce her beautiful. When the guests had all retired, and my master and mistress were left alone, I listened, as I stuck in a pin-cushion upon her dressing-table, to all their plans of life and happiness.
It was indeed a bright and beautiful scheme; but I am sorry to say that I lived to see many of their pretty plans fade away, and smiles give place to tears. I remained in this family nearly twenty years, occupying various places in the attire of the different members of the family; sometimes idly dropped upon the floor, and then again picked up to fasten some article of clothing.
When at length there were little ones around the hearth, I fastened their tiny garments, and sometimes, unwillingly, scratched their little chubby bodies [!!!], causing many a kick and scream, which were attributed either to colic or anger, according to the disposition of the person who had them in keeping.
One day as their eldest daughter was out shopping, I fell noiselessly from the bosom of her dress, where I had been carelessly stuck, upon the sidewalk of Broadway. It may be thought that a pin is incapable of feeling, but I felt the deepest regret when by this unlucky accident, I was severed from this family in whose service I had spent so many days; and I could not but feel a silent resentment against my mistress for fastening me so carelessly, as I had been a faithful and uncomplaining servant of hers from the very day of her birth.
I remained many weary days lying upon the sidewalk unseen, although thousands of people walked over me daily; and I sadly feared that I should be trodden into the dirt, and thus remain entombed the remainder of my days. But my fears proved groundless.
One day, after I had almost given up hope of being discovered, a little, short, dried up old man came along with his eyes upon the sidewalk, as though in search of pins, and deliberately picked me up and placed me in the lapel of his rusty coat.
I soon discovered that my new master was an old bachelor, of most eccentric manners and mode of living, who lodged in an attic on the Bowery. Once I heard him say mournfully, that he should not have been there alone, aimless in life, if it had not been for her, from which I inferred that some unhappy attachment in early life had made him misanthropic.
I remained in his service many years, sometimes fastening ugly rents in his garments; and at length he removed to Boston, where he naturally enough became more morose than ever. [!!!]
One day as he was walking upon the Common, he attempted to fasten his collar, which had an ugly habit of creeping up over his ears, when he pricked his finger with me, and threw me spitefully upon the ground, where I remained about one week.
One day a little girl on her way to school, came along and picked me up, repeating to herself the childish couplet—
‘Tis a sin to steal a pin
But ‘tis a greater to steal a tater
and took me to her home where I remained several years, being used principally to fasten the clothing of her doll.
One day in summer, her brother was sent off on a vacation to a little town in the State of Maine, and I was brought into requisition to fasten his collar. I remained in his service but a few weeks, but this was the most trying period of my life. Sometimes I soared to enormous heights in the tail of his kite, sometimes I was used to pierce flies and other innocent insects, and at length he used me to fish for minnows in a beautiful bay which indents the town where he was stopping.
There I received that ugly bend which you see in my back, being bent to resemble a fish-hook. After he had thus cruelly treated me, my young master threw me carelessly upon the beach, with a piece of cotton thread which he had used as a fishing line, tied around my throat. Here I lay in the sun many long days, and as the place was not frequented, I well-nigh despaired of ever attracting the attention of any living being. But I was not doomed to spend the remainder of my days in inactivity.
One moonlight night in autumn, a lady and gentleman came upon the beach to court the cool breeze, engaged in earnest conversation, over the sand where I was lying. The lady was young and pretty, and dressed in weeds which betokened widowhood. Her drapery was long and flowing, and at length as she passed over me, I, being bent, caught in some point-lace on her skirt, and was taken along with her. Her companion was a large, well-formed man, whom she called Judge Jones.
They walked together a long time, arm in arm, but at length the Judge, very much to my surprise, withdrew his arm, and placed it around the widow’s waist, who very properly remonstrated against such a proceeding; but I observed that she made no effort to remove it, although she stated very emphatically that it should not remain there. Just then the couple approached a large rock embedded in the sand, and the widow complaining of being fatigued, they sat down there to rest.
Here the Judge not only retained his arm in the position which was so offensive to his companion, but even ventured to kiss her, an impropriety which I cannot but condemn, although I must confess that I have been an unwilling spectator to many such a scene.
At this moment his companion grew very indignant, shedding tears and declaring that she was certain that the Judge meant to offend her, which imputation he very warmly denied, although I observed that he repeated the offense.
At this, my mistress grew still more indignant, and dropping her head upon her companion’s shoulder, emphatically demanded the meaning of such conduct. Here the Judge drew her still more closely to him, and said in a subdued and tremulous voice, “My dear madame I have long wished for an opportunity to tell you that — ”
Here the writer’s head fell heavily upon an adjoining table, and gathering himself up he found that his cigar had gone out, and that he himself had been idly napping, with the old rusty pin between his fingers.
It has ever since been a question of great interest to him, what it really was that the Judge was going to tell to his companion, and how the old pin lost its head—and finally came to be lying in the streets of Cambridge, but he has vainly striven to solve them, as the old pin has ever since maintained a most unbroken silence.
Should these facts ever come to the knowledge of the writer, however, they will be duly chronicled in the columns of the Transcript.
What an original idea: a story written by a pin! Well … not exactly. See this snippet from an 1835 English composition manual on suggested topics.
As for pinning down a date for the common use of machine-made pins, there is good information out there – if you want to stick to the subject and not wander around. Here is a good place to start for a more serious approach.
So when might I have found machine-made pins in a sewing basket or on a dressing table? It seems that by the late 1830s technology and economics combined to phase out skilled labor in favor of automation. Pins were no longer likely to lose their heads. And if I could just stay focused, I might not either. But where’s the fun in that?