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Origins of ‘pin money’

Posted in Historical articles, History, Interesting Words, Language on Sunday, 31 January 2016

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This edited article about pins originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 253 published on 19 November 1966.

pin money, picture, image, illustration

Pin Money – the first of two cartoons highlighting the different worlds of the rich and the poor

Pins of one sort or another have been holding clothes together for thousands of years. We know this for certain because, amongst the finds which archaeologists have dug up, pins appear again and again.

Many of the oldest ones are fatter and more lethal than anything we know now – almost like miniature daggers! In a Bronze Age grave, two pins for securing a robe were found, and they were twelve inches or more in length.

The Romans made many pins in both metal and bone. Most of them were quite plain, for everyday use, but some had ornately carved heads. On some a glass ball was clasped on to the top, or a carved hand stretched out its fingers; even human heads were carved on some, sporting elaborate hairstyles which must themselves have been secured by pins!

Beautiful medieval pins have been found, too, several with carved heads bearing crowns. Others can be seen in illustrated manuscripts.

Such pins as these were clearly objects of individual manufacture for the rich and noble. Far more common were the plain bone and metal ones. These are quite like modern ones, except that, since each was made individually, they have not the same even finish.

It is almost impossible to date many of the smaller pins because they have changed so little over the centuries. Sometimes historians guess at the date of pins they find holding documents together, but of course these might have been put there later and so are not necessarily of the same date.

Pins were hand-made. Many Pinner’s Bones have been dug up. These were the leg-bones of sheep, trimmed square at one end. Grooves were gouged out of the bone in which the pin was held while it was filed sharp. When the pin had been sharpened, a piece of thin wire was wound around the other end and firmly secured to form the head.

In the later Middle Ages, pins were mostly brought over from the Continent. The English government was disturbed to see so much money going out of the country on expensive “foreign trifles,” and in 1483 the importing of pins was forbidden.

King Henry VIII issued orders encouraging the “makyng of pynnes”, but one of his queens, Catherine Howard, nevertheless had pins sent to her from France in 1540.

France continued to supply pins to England until the 17th century, when the industry was brought to Gloucestershire. It prospered, and in 1636 the pinmakers formed a corporation in London, and the industry spread elsewhere.

needle money, picture, image, illustration

Needle Money – the second Punch cartoon showing a less genteel and privileged young lady

If everyday pins were not decorative, those made for the noble could be very fine indeed. They were sometimes made in precious metals, with the head inlaid with precious stones or enamel.

For centuries the custom prevailed for fathers, husbands and admirers to give either pins for presents to women, or a gift of money with which to buy pins – in short, pin money. The expression thus came into our language to describe the extra money women may be given to spend exactly as they wish.

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