An Hullensian called Alison had an interesting snippet of information.
“I don’t know if this is relevant but my Mum said if you bought something from a fashion house or haberdashers and your change was a farthing or a ha’penny, the assistant would ask you if you would ‘like to take pins’ instead of the change. You’d be given a card of dressmakers pins!”
Alison’s mother – Joan – was born in 1928. She thought it likely that she was referring to the late 30s and 40s when her Mum worked as a cashier at Jackson’s tailors in Whitefriargate, Hull.
Alison didn’t say whether her Mum had given pins for change at Jackson’s but, as she was a cashier, it sounded like the sort of knowledge that was passed through the ranks.
Or was it? Perhaps this practice was more widespread.
Although this conversational snippet of history had stuck in her memory, her mother is no longer alive to ask her more.
Two questions arose from this conversation:
Where did the practice of exchanging pins for small change come from and when did it end?
How can this memory be preserved?
Origin of the phrase “pin money”
The first response was whether it was linked to the phrase ‘pin money.’
If pins were given in an exchange with old Sterling it was giving a dressmaking pin a value. It seemed a natural leap to think of it that way.
The answer was no. Dressmaking pins have value which has increased and decreased throughout history, but this wasn’t where pin money originates.
Dressmaking pin economics
Until recently in history dressmaking pins were expensive and fiddly to make. Usually made of metal, ancient Sumerians fashioned them from iron but they’ve also been made of brass and steel.
The process of manufacture before full automation was also time consuming and expensive and that cost was passed onto the buyer.
Pin money became a phrase used to describe the money men would give women to spend on hats, clothes or any other use that required a small amount of money to purchase, including pins.
It wasn’t a lot of money but it was of vital importance to a fashionable woman.
Dressmaking pin evolution
Dressmaking pins as we know them today are the result of thousands of years of pin-evolution.
In pre-history people would use sharpened bones to hold furs together. During Roman times precious metals like gold would be fashioned into more elaborate and decorative pins and by the Industrial Revolution, mechanisation stepped in to change pin manufacture again.
Fashions during the Regency period 1811 – 1820 often had to be fastened and secured daily by using pins. This is how frills, bows, sleeves and trims were kept in place.
As zips weren’t in common use until the 1920s as uncomfortable as it sounds today, during that era and for many years before and afterwards tacking or pinning seams together was commonplace.
Ouch! You’d have to make sure you were careful in how you moved around in case you got pricked by one of them. Having pins to hand was not optional in the past, it was essential.
It was fast becoming clearer how pin-economics could have happened just as Alison’s Mum Joan had described.
Electroplating dressmaking pins and the evolution of the pin cushion
From the 19th to the 20th Century, the use of steel caused pins to rust. To protect them they were electroplated with nickel.
It wasn’t a perfect solution because the nickel often flaked off and the pins would need to be cleaned so as not to damage clothing. To clean them, they’d be pushed into bags containing emery grit.
That bag has evolved into the pin cushions we know today.
Pin cards in pin selling and manufacture
Once mass pin manufacture took off in early to mid 19thCentury, pins needed to be contained at the end of the process.
Long before the plastic tubs were invented that we are familiar with today, pieces of card or paper with slits in them would be used like combs to scoop up, order and collect pins to offer them for sale.
A pin card was a very good invention. It contained a finite amount of pins and they would be easily transported to the shops that sold them.
The practice of selling pins on pin cards continued far into the 20th Century until pin cards were routinely replaced by plastic pin tubs in the 1950s and 60s.
Pin selling in Drapers shops
Pins were absolutely essential but where would you go to buy your pin card?
Until very recently you’d buy them from a drapers.
The word ‘draper’ means something entirely different nowadays. These days it describes a method of hanging cloth in fashion construction.
But throughout history, a drapers shop would be the go-to place to buy dressmaking cloth and essential tailoring ephemera and more besides.
Being a draper was an extremely important component of trade. Drapers often belonged to their own trade guilds in towns and cities.
Their connection to the business and practice of dressmaking and tailoring cannot be underestimated.
Drapers were powerful and connected business people with a ready-made market in the tailors shops like Jackson’s Tailors in Hull’s Whitefriargate.
Drapers were the precursor to modern haberdashers.
Due to the massive changes that took place in retail, fashion, tailoring and dressmaking in the post-war period, by the time decimalisation took place in 1971 they had faded into collective memory.
Farthings given as change in the UK
If you were shopping in a pre-1970s drapers shop the transaction would have been in old money and a farthing – or 1/4d – was worth a quarter of a penny. In new money that’s about 0.1p.
Like these Redditch based Kirby Beard fine steel pins from the 1950s, 1&3, or 1 shilling and thruppence bought you 350 pins.
1 shilling and thruppence doesn’t sound like a lot of money but it needs to be compared to the wonderful history of sewing pins filtered through from the past.
Pin-economics meant each pin was worth far less and they’d also been polished and sharpened. Pin cushions had also replaced the bags used for cleaning.
Oral history of pin economics
In the 1920s in Chilham Kent, in 1905 in Cheltenham in Gloucestershire and in the 1900s in Edmonton in London, people recorded their memories of being offered a choice between pins or farthings in their local drapers shops.
Exchanging pins for farthings at the turn of the 19th Century.
Predominantly women, they were working in the shops as the assistants or business owners – this was part of the female economy that kept the drapers stores ticking over.
Giving pins instead of farthings was such routine practice at the turn of the last century, that the drapers store J Arnott and Co in Belfast and Cork, Ireland offered a token which was worth a farthing. This could be exchanged for pins.
On eBay a packet of “Queen Victoria Diamond Jubilee” farthing change sewing pins was auctioned – what a delightful discovery!
Made in 1897, the packet was elaborately designed and has been kept in good condition considering its age and use.
Telling this story keeps dressmaking history alive
Although Alison didn’t know more about her Mum’s comment she has opened a door to a past that touches on thousands of years of pin history.
From the Industrial Revolution to women’s economy and the fashions that made pins essential her Mum passed on a most valuable gift – insight into an era that keeps the history of pin-economics alive.
Thank you to Alison for sharing her Mum’s memory.
© Carrie Henderson 2015