Queen Elizabeth (b. 1533 – d. 1603) used about 3,000 straight pins a month, probably more than most, but still an impressive amount. Pins have been used for about 4,000 years, appearing around the emergence of the bronze age. You probably didn’t know this because men were our story tellers of early history, and they found battles more exciting than pins.
Yet, the lowly pin made all the difference. The pin kept things in place and provided a showy way for the noble class, the gentry, the gentlemen to be distinguished from their servants. Men and women dressed in pieces of clothing–many different interchangeable parts. They could change sleeves, stomachers, collars, bodices, and other items for a different appearance for different occasions.
Pins held these pieces of clothing together. Men’s clothing might use rows of buttons, but also pins you can’t see. Even children’s fine clothes required pinning. The earliest known pins were formed from bone, with needles coming into being about the same time. However, Queen Elizabeth I would have used pins made of bronze, brass, or iron. Iron remained sharp longer, but like bronze would tarnish. Pins came in long, medium, and delicate sizes. Delicate ones were used to attach lace and silk, like this gentleman’s cuffs and collar.
If you look closely at the photo of the woman you can see where pins undoubtedly were used. She has pearls in her hair, a collar that stands up more stiffly than from just being starched, her over dress contains many parts and decorations. We can see two roses at the neck line, a cape with a halo-like collar with pearls pinned to its edges around her Elizabethan collar that goes up and behind her hair, a bodice with several parts ending in a low pointed stomacher, drapes of pearls attached to her sleeves and around her cuffs and wrists, and the elegant fabric of her skirt pinned up in flounces around her hips. We can’t even begin to see her underpinnings.
This photo of a noble lady can be dated around the reign of Queen Elizabeth because of her Elizabethan collar and her manner of dress. She has most likely employed hundreds of pins to dress in this attire. The importance these pins held for the noble can’t be denied, but even the kitchen maid and the peasant women required a few pins. They had to hold their caps in place–as well as their pinafores.
Upon discovering the importance of pins from the earliest of times until the late 1800s, I wondered how would an active person keep from yelping with pain. Then I delved deeper into the clothing of the 16th and 17th century and understood. These men and women, or their servants, knew how to pin correctly. Also everyone dressed in many layers of clothing, protecting them from the prickly points of pins. Besides, those who wore the most pins would have had the most staff to do their tasks. Sudden or laborious movements would rarely be necessary.
It’s been years since I’ve purchased a packet of pins. A month ago I bought my husband a shirt and once at home I removed four short pins that had kept the shirt looking neatly folded. Can you remember the last time you bought or encountered a new pin?