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Updated on April 14, 2010

A pin is small piece of brass or steel wire, sharp at one end and furnished with a head at the other, used chiefly for the toilet for temporarily securing portions of the dress, and generally by seamstresses and tailors for fastening their work together. The need of little utensils of this sort has been met from ancient times by various devices.

The original pin must have been slit from the shaft of a bird's feather, as the root word, Latin pinna, means feather. In the Egyptian tombs they are found much more elaborate and costly than the pins of the present time. They vary in length up to seven or eight inches, and are furnished sometimes with large gold heads, and sometimes with a band of gold around the upper end, those of the latter kind ttaving probably been used for securing the hair. The ancient Mexicans found in the thorns of the agave convenient substitutes for metallic pins; and even the English, up to the middle of the 16th century, made use of rude skewers of wood, though they also made others of gold, silver and brass to serve as pins. To that time they had depended upon the manufacturers on the Continent for their supplies of the better sorts of pins, and this importation appears to have been established previous to 1483, when it was interrupted by a prohibitory statute. In 1543 an act of Parliament provided "that no person shall put to sale any pins but only such as be double-headed and have the head soldered fast to the shank of the pin, well smoothed, the shank well shaven, the point well and roundly filed, canted and sharpened."

Within three years from this time the manufacture was so much improved that the statute was of no importance. In Gloucester the business of pin making was introduced in 1626, and soon proved so prosperous that it gave employment to 1,500 persons. It was established in London in 1636, and afterward in Birmingham, which became the chief seat in England of this and other manufacturing operations of similar character.

In the United States pins were first made in Rhode Island during the Revolution by Jeremiah Wilkinson, the heads being made by twisting fine wires firmly at one end. Samuel Slocum at about the same time commenced in Providence in the same line. In 1824 a machine for making solid-headed pins was invented by Lemuel W. Wright, of New Hampshire, which was soon after introduced into England, patents also being granted there. It was, however, crude compared with those of later construction, and did not complete all the operations of pin making. In 1831 the first machine for making perfect solid-headed pins like those now in use was invented by John Ireland Howe, a physician of Bellevue Hospital, New York City, and in the next year a company was started in that city. Six years later the business was removed to Derby, Conn., where it is still carried on. In 1835 another company was formed by Dr. Howe, which continued its operations under his charge till 1865, many improvements being made. Samuel Slocum, an ingenious Connecticut man, invented a pin-sticking machine, which was used in Howe's factory in 1841, and wis improved in 1843, he and Slocum becoming joint owners of the two patents.

The manufacture of pins has become such an industry in the United States that the mills of this country provides a large proportion of the world supply of this article. As early as 1900, the 75,000,000 people in the United States used 60,000,000 gross of common pins. This was equal to an average of about 113 pins for every man, woman, and child in the country- the highest average reached anywhere up to that time. The United States Census now lumps together the makers of pins, needles, and hooks and eyes, so that exact statistics on pin production are no longer given.

Common pins were once widely used in offices to attach papers together. This function is now more commonly served, at least in the United States, by paper clips and staples, which have obvious advantages of convenience and safety.

Photo by Uros Kotnik
Photo by Uros Kotnik

Pins are made of various metals, depending on the uses to which they will be put- steel, nickel, brass, silver, and so on. They may be coated or plated with various other metals, such as tin or nickel. Automatic machines are used; they have brought down manufacturing costs greatly. A single machine does the work. Coils of wire, hung upon reels, are passed into machines which cut them into proper lengths, and they drop off into a receptacle and arrange themselves in the line of a slot formed by two bars. When they reach the lower end of the bars they are seized and pressed between two dies, which form the heads, and pass along into the grip of another steel device, which points them by pressure. They are then dropped into a solution of sour beer, whirling as they go, to be cleaned, and then into a hot solution of tin, which is also kept revolving. They here receive their bright coat of metal, and are pushed along, killing time, until they have had an opportunity to harden, when they are dropped into a revolving barrel of bran and sawdust, which cools and polishes them at the same time. Because of the oscillation of the bran they work gradually down to the bottom of the barrel, which is a metallic plate cut into slits just big enough for the body of the pins, but not big enough for the head to pass through. Thus they are straightened out into rows again, and, like well drilled soldiers, pass along toward the edge of the bottom, and slide down an inclined plane, still hanging by their heads, until they reach strips of paper, to which they are introduced by a curious jerk of the machine. The first they know they are all placed in rows, wrapped up and on their way to the big department stores, where they are sold at a small price. A machine is expected to throw out several thousand gross an hour. Hairpins and safety pins and other kinds of pins are all manufactured by somewhat similar special machinery.

The word pin is applied in mechanics to any relatively small straight piece of metal that serves to join parts. The crank-pin of a great steamship's mainshaft may weigh a ton, whereas a pin in a watch-plate may be difficult to discern. A wooden pin is now more commonly called a peg. Both needles and hairpins are manufactured to a greater extent in Europe than plain pins. Safety pins, however, are decidedly American, and of these we make on an average 1,000,000 gross a year.


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