Stick a Pin In It
It’s 1849 and inventor Walter Hunt is sitting in his New York workshop, worrying about how to pay off a $15 debt he owed a friend. While he racks his brain for a solution to his money woes, he mindlessly twists a piece of metal wire around his fingers. Suddenly, he realizes he’s done something. After twisting the wire a few times and folding it in upon itself, Walter notices that the wire held enough tension to clasp together and enough spring to open and close over and over. While distracted by financial problems, he had redesigned an item that hadn’t been changed in literally thousands of years. Walter Hunt had accidentally invented the Safety Pin. He spent the rest of the night making a prototype and sketching designs for the tool, had them patented on April 10th of the same year, and then went on to sell the patten for $400 to the very man he owed $15.
So, why was this reinvention of the pin so groundbreaking? To understand why the new Safety Pin design was so revolutionary, we must go back. Way back. Like 450 B.C. Ancient Greece back.
Get in, we’re going time traveling. We’re leaving 19th century New York and heading back to Ancient Greece. Don’t worry, we’ll be back.
It’s 450’s B.C. and Greece has been at war with Persia for half of the century. Men from Athens have been sent to fight while their wives and daughters wait for their return. Sadly, only one man returned, bearing the sad news that the army had lost the battle and he was the only survivor, sent back to tell the story of defeat. Upon hearing the news of their husbands’ demise, the women of Athens were not only devastated, but they were LIVID. Furious that this one man survived while their husbands perished, they attacked him. The mob of women yanked the straight pins that held up their chiton gowns and stabbed the surviving soldier to death in the street, all while screaming “why should you live if they are dead” and “where is my husband”.
Greek Gold Straight Pin, Circa 6th Century BC; Metropolitan Museum of Art
According to book 5 of Herodotus’ “The Histories”, the Athenian leaders were so terrified of the actions of the women, finding the one murder to be “more dreadful than their own misfortune” of losing an entire army. I mean, Hell Hath No Fury, am I right? Ultimately, the only way they could find to punish the women (and not just these women, but the entire Athenian female population) was to mandate a change in dress. No longer would women be allowed to wear the Doric style of dress which allowed for a decorative straight pin to hold the fabric in place upon the shoulder. Instead, they were forced to adopt the Corinthian, or Ionic shape, which eliminated the use of pins all together since the garments were fastened at the shoulders or along the sleeves with a button style closure.
Doric Chiton vs Ionic Chiton
Outlawing the straight pins of the Doric dress created a bit of a void for women of status. Aside from using colorful fabrics with intricate embroidery to show off their wealth, upper class women depended on these pins as a sign of their place in society. Made from precious metals and extremely decorative, the pins were a functional sign of prestige. No longer being allowed to fasten their chitons with the extravagant accessory created a need for a new way to decorate their gowns with metals and jewels. Women began wearing the Roman style Fibula pin, a brooch style pin that was bent into a hook shape with a flat plate on top for decorative designs to be applied. The hooked nature of the pin made the risk of murdering people in the street impossible, so the use of them was a welcome compromise. By the 1st century AD, the fibula pin had become available in a wide variety of shapes and materials and became a staple accessory that has survived even to this day in the form of the modern-day brooch.
Ancient Greece Circa 3-2nd century B.C.; Ancient Resource
Fast forwarding through time, the fibula, or brooch remained pretty much unchanged in its basic design and function. Decorative and ranging from simple to extravagant, the mechanism remained that the pin bent underneath the plate and threaded through the fabric of clothing to stay in place, and only sometimes fastened upon itself. For the most part, the point of the pin was exposed and threatened fingertips, breast, and necks with painful pricks. Cue Walter Hunt and his brilliant redesign of the tiny tool. His new design for the pin created a covered head, allowing the pin to close on itself without the threat of stabbing the one wearing it.
Walter Hunt's Safety Pin Patent
Fun Fact: Walter Hunt is also the inventor of the Lockstitch sewing machine. This machine is currently used in all types of garment construction and was the first machine to create a stitch that didn’t mimic a hand stitch. Walter shared the design with his daughter in hopes that she would help him engineer and manufacture it. She pointed out that the machine may put hundreds of women out of work, so, sweet baby angel Walter Hunt scrapped the idea because he didn’t want to be the reason women lost their jobs. It wasn’t patented until ten years later when Hunt entered a patent war with Elias Howe Jr, who claimed to have designed an improved version of the machine. Never driven by capital gains, Hunt accepted name credit for the design and worked with Howe to perfect it for mass marketing.
The timing of Hunt’s safety pin design couldn’t have been more perfect. Before the 1830’s, the pin had been a costly item to produce; so expensive that the term “pin money” comes from the practice of the head of the household gifting the lady of the house a sum of money on January 1st or 2nd, specifically meant for purchasing her pins for the year. The phrase is still used today to refer to money used on inessential items, or “fun money”. In 1838, Samuel Slocum opened a pin factory in New York which was capable of mass-producing pins made from brass and stainless steel. Ten years later, Walter Hunt redesigned the pin, allowing for the mass production of the safety pin we have today.
No longer a symbol of status, the safety pin’s mass availability after the 19th century made it an item of utility and, in many cultures, tradition. In Ukraine, it’s a symbol of safety, often pinned to children’s clothing to ward off evil spirits. In India, safety pins are included in sewing kits that are passed down through matriarchal generations. In Latin culture, a safety pin is fastened to the underwear of an expecting mother during a lunar eclipse to prevent complications and birth defects. It is lucky to find a safety pin laying around, unlucky to find one in water. In the 70’s and 80’s the safety pin was woven through tattered clothing as a fashion statement and symbol of rebellion during the punk rock movement.
Over the last few decades, the safety pin has played a huge role in fashion, adding an edgy element to clothing and style. They are used to decorate jackets, shirts, hats and incorporated into jewelry, or even worn as jewelry themselves. Vivian Westwood, Jean Paul Gaultier, and Moschino are a known for sending safety pin clad garments down high fashion runways. In 2017, Balenciaga and Sonia Rykiel decorated model's ears with giant safety pin inspired earrings. Pinterest and Etsy are saturated with DIY ideas for safety pin jewelry and clothing accessories.
Punk Inspired Jacket Detail, Moschino
In the last year, the safety pin as a symbol has had a resurgence with American culture, representing a stance of solidarity with minority groups against racist and xenophobic hate. Representing a “you are safe with me” idea, people wear a safety pin visibly on their clothes and have gone as far as to tattoo one on their skin to show their status as an ally. It started in the UK after the 2016 Brexit referendum and made its way to the US after Donald Trump’s election. It’s been given new life recently in America as a symbol of support for the Afghani people after President Biden pulled our troops out of Afghanistan, leaving the country to the mercy of the Taliban. The movement has been met with a lot of criticism, referred to as “slacktivism” and accused of not actually doing much to prevent or change the abuse that minority groups face every day. At most, it brought awareness to the issues, but awareness means nothing if it’s not backed up with actions for tangible change. It’s become viewed as much of a symbol of “white guilt” as it is a symbol of solidarity. Ultimately, the question it leaves us with is, while the show of solidarity is a nice gesture, is it enough?
From an ancient murder to present day political issues, the safety pin has had a long, colorful life. It’s a tiny little tool that we use every day without thinking about, and yet it’s got such a long and interesting history. I use safety pins daily, and every time I pick one up, I can’t help but think to myself, a man was murdered thousands of years ago, and now I can pin the hang tag on the item I just sold. Whether it’s protecting you from evil spirits or holding your pants together because the button popped off, the simple design and function of the safety pin has allowed it to survive thousands of years, and regardless of technological advancements, will probably survive a thousand more.
Andromedaofsparta, ~. “Put a Pin in It.” Andromeda of Sparta, 16 Aug. 2018, https://andromedaofsparta.wordpress.com/2017/08/15/put-a-pin-in-it/.
Dontshootthecostumer, et al. “Very Superstitious, Writing's on the Wall!” Don't Shoot the Costumer, 9 Sept. 2013, https://dontshootthecostumer.wordpress.com/2013/09/08/very-superstitious-writings-on-the-wall/.
Gatollari, Mustafa. “Wearing Safety Pins Isn't Exactly a New Thing - Here's What It Means These Days.” Distractify, Distractify, 19 Aug. 2021, https://www.distractify.com/p/what-does-wearing-a-safety-pin-mean.
“A Visual History of the Safety Pin.” Museum of Every Day Life, https://museumofeverydaylife.org/current-exhibitions/a-visual-history-of-the-safety-pin.