The History of the Humble Pin: holding the world together whilst we tear it apart.

empowering pin badge

Let’s talk about the feminist history of empowering pins and badges, and how the pin is sometimes mightier than the sword.

Whilst reminding myself of the precise sequence of events in the Pendle Witch Trials, I found, and remembered, two very odd things. The first? When I took a tour of Lancaster Castle, where the trials themselves took place, the tour guide asserted that Alison Device (or Davis, as she assumed her name might be rendered in modern times) was making a dress. That was why Alison begged/wished to buy pins from the peddler whose ill-timed stroke would kill eleven people.

When I asked the guide what evidence there was for it, she just said that what else would Alison need pins for?

The second thing I remembered is that on the Wikipedia page for the Pendle Witch trials it states that Alison was probably after the pins – an expensive luxury item – for magical purposes.

Several pins on a leather jacket lapel, focused on a safety pin with a banner reading 'you are safe with me'


In truth, we will never know what she wanted. But a closer reading of history, and of common facts of common people, suggests there may have been a more mundane reason that Alison wanted a few pins.

In the early medieval period, dresses (and, indeed, all clothes) were comprised of square and rectangle shapes: this being the shape the fabric was woven in. Any shaping or fitting was achieved by pulling a belt around one’s waist, which was also handy for carrying things when pockets were as easily available as in the women’s formalwear section in any modern department store.

Later, for the rich, darts and pleats were introduced. Fabric was cut to create more flattering silhouettes and to make it clear that you were wealthy enough to buy a piece of material only to throw bits of it away. But this created a problem for ladies wanting to flaunt and flatter their curves: Dresses with no shape would drop over their heads and easily hang around their bodies. The new styles required openings to help ease them on. And openings required fastenings.

By the Tudor period (a little before Alison’s time) there were established rules and expectations for fastenings. ‘Points’ were the man’s fastening, belts still held things together and provided a place to put your sword whilst you did other things, and a little elasticity in knitted woollen stockings meant that a man went through life more concerned with which religion the monarch favoured than if he was well-dressed. Women, in contrast, had another solution to their now incredibly form-fitting bodices. Laces would hold her stays closed, but pins would keep everything else in place.

As the centuries rolled on, pins remained the easy choice for women’s clothing. They were secure when used properly, generally not painful, and plentiful if lost. They also importantly offered flexibility: hoods and hats could be pinned in the fashionable way, and sleeves and skirts could be tucked to flatter a changing body through puberty, pregnancy and aging. The elaborate ruffles that appear on every Shakespearian parody were not permanently sewn creations: They were starched, pinned and ironed every time they were to be worn.

This might sound daunting, but the use of pins actually made fashion affordable and fun for everyone. Even a common maidservant might indulge in the latest ruff styles for church because she could do it with the same ruff she used last Sunday.

And every woman was to be provided for, by her husband or guardian, in the manner of a little ‘pin money’ when new ones were needed.

Elizabethan shipping and trade records suggest pins were commonly sold by the thousand, costing two pence in the 1580s, and hardly rising to extortionate amounts by 1612 when pins – or the lack of them – caused a young woman to utter a curse on the man who wouldn’t give/sell them to her.

The industrial revolution saw off pins as fasteners, as it saw off many things. Mass production of clothes meant that the days of the personal fit were going out for all but the richest, and most women had the tools and skills to sew darts in their clothes if they so wished, without resorting to pins to keep it all neatly around their corseted waists. Hooks and buttons were becoming more common as fasteners, busier lives meant that they needed everything to stay put and there was more scope for decoration.

Pins, for the most part, were put quietly into sewing boxes and forgotten.

But not all kinds of pins slipped out of favour. Whilst small pins were used to keep a headdress in place and fashionably positioned, large hat pins were becoming the norm. They were used for keeping hats on the head where bonnets were not in vogue and secured themselves a place in history (and feminism) as notorious weapons of personal protection.

Women were generally discouraged from doing most things during the Victorian period, given that their delicate lady bodies and free-roaming uteruses could cause all sorts of maladies and hysteria at any moment. In particular, there was fear that women’s wombs might dislodge or explode if carried at the frightening speeds of the new railways.

Let’s think on that for a moment.

Okay. Let’s move on.

When women ignored the advice of men and got on the trains anyway, they discovered that the risks posed to them were the same risks that were (and still are) in any location: men.

Women in train carriages, especially women alone in those carriages, were assumed to be ‘fast girls’, and not just because they were travelling at thirty miles per hour. Men, as they have done for time immemorial, decided to prey on these women… and alone in train carriages that passed through tunnels and under bridges that left them in near total darkness, a woman’s handiest method of defending herself was to grab the large metal pin in her hat and insert it into the nearest fleshy bit of the man in question.

The large hat pin was a hit. Bigger, flashier, more ostentatious and more damaging hat pins became available. Men called in newspapers for the hatpin to be BANNED or, if it could not be removed entirely, for its size to be limited. These dreadful pieces were encouraging women to feel confident enough to travel alone… but think of the poor men who were assaulted in the act of assaulting a woman!

Such was the power of the hatpin that, in 1912, one was used in an act of political defiance as well as self defence. A group of women marched to Parliament House, and a group of policemen decided the best course of action was to charge them with their batons. The leader of the women, a spunky trade union organiser and suffragist called Emma Miller, stabbed the Police Commissioner’s horse. The horse threw the commissioner; he was injured, and hopefully thought twice about charging any more ‘unarmed’ groups of peaceful protesters again.

Pins remain a part of the costume of the individual. Now almost exclusively decorative, they show the passions and interests of the wearer. Charities and political organisations love them. Marginalised activists with backpacks, punks with leather jackets, older ladies with Sunday best coats… there are pins for everyone.

In the wake of the Brexit votes in Britain and the election of Donald Trump in America – both campaigns that played on racism and the call to deport unwanted people from ‘our’ countries – social media called for people to wear safety pins as a symbol of defiance against those policies: that all people were ‘safe’ with the wearer. The intent was to offer vulnerable people a visible sign of who they could sit by on a busy bus or where to turn when a crowded room proved full of verbal or physical abuse. It created an obligation for the wearer to act on the promises they’d made on social media that they would ‘do something’ to help. It made it clear to those who wanted to loudly promote their racist ideals in public that they weren’t being listened to.

From dressing essentials, to punky promises worn like hearts on sleeves, through keeping modest to protecting with some serious style, the pin has a far from humble place in our history. It might not be the first thing that you think of when you imagine political revolution, self proclaimed witches in the woods, or anti-police brutality weaponry: but the pins are always there.

Collection of pin badges on leather jacket lapel, focusing on a 'Manchester Bee'
Pins. Holding the world together. Whilst we tear it apart.