Friday, 21 June 2013

Pins in the Early Modern Period

Close up of the head of a 16th century gold pin in the
Portable Antiquities Database
The word pin, as in the Oxford English Dictionary definition  “A small, thin, rigid piece of metal with a sharp point at one end and a flattened or rounded head at the other, used to hold objects in place or together, esp. pieces of fabric while they are fitted or sewn,” dates back to Anglo-Saxon times. Research which was done on Anglo-Saxon dress pins by Ross (1991) identified no less than 83 different types with lots of different functions.

The making of pins continued into the medieval period with pinners guilds being set up in major cities such as London and York, and by the time these guilds were formed pins were so important that the 1348 trousseau of Princess Joan included some 12,000 pins. The pinners of London were not recognised as a guild until 1356, but Megson (2009) states that as early as 1278 there was a Walter le Pinnere living in Smithfield; while the ordinances for the pinners’ apprentices in  York were laid down at the “time of the Great Pestilence”, that is about 1349. (Longman, 1911)

What constituted a pin was set out by the 1544 “Acte for the true making of pynnes”, which stated, “oonelie suche as shalbe double headed and have the heads soudered faste to the shanke of the pynne well smothered, the shanke well shaven the pointe well and round fyled cauted and sharped,” could be considered true pins. It also set the price for pins at no more than 6 shillings 8 pence a thousand. (34 & 35 Henry 8 c. 6). The act obvious did not go down well as it was repealed almost straight away (37 Henry 8. c. 13).

The customs rate book for 1550 gives “Pynnes the dossen thousande ii.s.”  (Edwards, 1970). A later chapman’s inventory of 1588 gives, “3000 of pyns 1s 9d.” (Spufford, 1984).  Robert Careles who was Queen Elizabeth’s pinner provided her with vast quantities throughout her reign, a 1563 warrant relating to him shows 16,000 great farthingale pins at 6 shillings the thousand, 20,000 middle farthingale pins at 4 shillings the thousand, 20,000 great velvet pins at 2 shillings 8 pence the thousand and 58,000 small velvet and head pins at 20 pence the thousand. (Arnold, 1988) Harrison (1577) reckoned the value of pins made in England to be £60,000 a year. Interestingly by this point in time the idea of a pin being something of small worth had already entered the language. The Oxford English Dictionary gives, “In fayth, thi felowship set I not at a pyn.” from 1500, “neuer a pinsworthe of pleasure.” from 1562 and “yet he is not worth a pin” from 1577.

Pins that survive from archaeological contexts are normally copper alloy (archaeologist speak for brass). Caple (1991) stated that they formed 99% of those found on high medieval and post medieval sites, and yet Megson (2009) comments that Osmund iron, the basic for a hard steel wire, was being imported into England by the fifteenth century. It may be simply that, because iron rusts, they are underrepresented in the finds, for example one record in the database of the Portable Antiquities Scheme says “cast biconvex head from a pin; ferrous corrosion indicates the loss of an iron or steel shank.” While the bulk of the finds in PAS are copper alloy there are also lead-alloy, silver, silver-gilt and gold pins (Portable Antiquities Scheme), and obviously pins could have highly decorated heads. Massinger’s play the City Madam (1640) speaks of “A silver pin headed with a pearl worth three-pence,” another example of this decorated type is pin is a 16th century gold pin recorded in PAS, the head having flowers made with turquoise. a close up of the head is above.

Caple(1991) has commented on the apparent decline in the length of pins over time, with pins before 1500 having a mean length of over 40mm, pins between 1500 and 1630 having a mean length of 29-35mm and pins between 1630 and 1730 being 25-30mm. To put this in context a standard dress pin purchased today is about 25mm and the longer dress pins, the type with coloured heads, are around 35mm. Pincushions are another subject completely and worth of a separate post.
Bibliography
Arnold, J. ed. 1988. Queen Elizabeth's wardrobe unlock'd. Leeds : Maney, 1988.

Caple, C. 1991. The detection and definition of an industry: the English medieval and post medieval pin industry. Archaeological Journal. 1991, Vol. 148. 241-55
Edwards, J. and Nevinson, J. L. 1970. The rates of the London Custom House in 1550. Costume. 1970, Vol. 4. 3-12

Harrison, William. 1577. Description of England. 1577.
Longman, E and Lock, S. 1911. Pins and pincuhions. London : Longman, 1911.

Megson, Barbara, ed. 2009. The pinners' and wiresellers' book 1462-1511. London : London Record Society, 2009.
Portable Antiquities Scheme. Database. Portable Antiquities Scheme. [Online] British Museum. [Cited: 20 June 2013.] http://finds.org.uk/database.

Ross, Seamus. 1991. Dress Pins from Anglo-Saxon England: Their Production and Typo-chronological Development. s.l. : Oxford University (unpublished PhD thesis), 1991.
Spufford, M. 1984. The great reclothing of rural England: petty chapmen and their wares in the seventeenth century. London : Hambledon Press, 1984.

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