Pins, Pins, and More Pins!

When I started doing research on medieval dressing pins I knew that their use was extremely common. A lot of clothing, particularly women’s clothing from the 1500’s on, relied on pins to hold sleeves on, fronts closed, and accessories in place. Men used pins to hold ruffs in place and later cravats and other items. Bruegel’s market scenes clearly show the little pins holding partlets in place, and even portraits of important people show pin heads, usually gilded or gold, holding dresses closed.  Knowing all of this, I had no idea what a pain it would be to locate actual find records for dressing pins with good pictures.

Now you may be wondering what dressing pins are. Note – I said dressing, not dress. If you search for dress pins you will locate tons of wonderful, decorative, and often very fancy, dress pins. They generally range in size from two inches to six inches, and they can have cast, filigree, enamel, or even jeweled tops. They are meant to be seen. Sometimes they were functional, and sometimes they were just for decoration. Dressing pins, on the other hand, are designed to be functional. They are sometimes gilded to look like gold, or tinned, to look like silver. The majority of them are made of a copper alloy – basically some sort of brass or bronze, and they were used to hold clothing together. Why a copper alloy? Iron pins RUST! Here is a nice collection of pins from England

So what did these amazing little pins look like up close? Basically they were a straight piece of wire with another piece of wire wrapped tightly around the top to form the pin head. The head was most often round, but it could also be a columnar form. Sometimes the heads were left plain, and sometimes they were tinned to look like silver or gilded to look like gold. The length of the pin body varied from about an inch to 2 inches, depending on the intended use. This example is 1 1/2 inches long.

one horizontal pin

Most dressing pins are simply categorized as pins in data bases, possibly because there is no way to discern between them and sewing pins, and possibly because the individuals categorizing them are not familiar with their potential uses. By the time we get to locations like Williamsburg, VA we see the archaeologists distinguishing between copper alloy pins and iron pins. They consider the iron pins to be used for sewing and the copper-alloy pins to be used for dressing. And this distinction appears to have continued down to Victorian times. Here is a great link to a blog about 18th century use of pins in women’s clothing. And lest you think that information for Williamsburg is irrelevant to Medieval dressing pins – the manufacturing technique and form of the spiral headed pins remains the same to this day. Inexpensive solid headed dressing pins did not become available until 1824, when a patent was issued to Lemuel Wright, an American, for the equipment to manufacture them.

The lack of distinctions between pin types in most data bases means that a researcher has to wade through all of the entries for pins, looking at pictures, and reading descriptions to determine which pins might have been dressing pins. The word tedious doesn’t even vaguely come close.

And now that you know how important pins were to the properly dressed lady, and gentleman, you can understand the importance of “pin money”.