The use of pins in early modern England (1450-1700)

Pins were an essential item in the early modern household, especially in the making, sewing and mending of clothes. They were used to fasten items of men’s and women’s clothing, with the pin chosen reflecting the weight, colour and type of textile on which the pin was used. Less obviously, pins could offer the early modern woman a defence against the unwelcome advances of amorous males:

‘and I walked towards White Hall, but, being wearied, turned into St. Dunstan’s Church, where I heard an able sermon of the minister of the place; and stood by a pretty, modest maid, whom I did labour to take by the hand and the body; but she would not, but got further and further from me; and, at last, I could perceive her to take pins out of her pocket to prick me if I should touch her again — which seeing I did forbear, and was glad I did spy her design’.

(The Diary of Samuel Pepys, 18 August 1667)

The use of the term ‘pynpillowe’ can be traced to the 1530s, while ‘pincushion’ seems to have been coined in the 1630s. Pins in transit were kept in a ‘pin purse’, which was in existence from at least as early as the 1550s, and the pincase originated even earlier. The pincushion was for the safekeeping of pins in the home and the pin purse for the convenience of having pins close at hand. Pins were not left for long in clothing, as the oxidation of the metal could stain the cloth; likewise, staining on paper indicates the use of pins, as discussed below concerning the habits of the English Puritan preacher Richard Baxter.

As pins were essential for rich and poor alike, they were distributed widely by itinerant pedlars as well as sold in shops. They could be purchased at the cost of 6d per 1,000 in 1607, and came in a variety of sizes and types. The ‘white’ pin was made of brass and coated with a thin layer of tin oxide, which gave it a white appearance. Without the tin layer, they were ‘red’ pins. Both red and white pins can be recognized in the pincushion of Elizabeth Vernon, Countess of Southampton painted circa 1600s. ‘Black’ pins are also found in documents but, in my experience, less frequently than white. They differ in being made from iron and coated in black varnish. These were mourning pins, intended to fasten mourning attire and black to render them invisible. Their use in pinning manuscripts together proved deleterious, because when the varnish broke down the iron pin would rust, which was obviously detrimental to the paper.

The purpose of this blog is to explain the importance of the straight, wound-wire-headed pin to the seventeenth-century scholar, whose use of such pins was simply – but critically – to fasten together his/her documents. Of course, many such scholars either stitched or sewed their own papers together with a needle and thread or, if they could afford it, employed a scribe to prepare documents for them. Pepys retained an amanuensis who looked after his scribal needs; he reports in his diary,  

‘Up and set my people, Mercer, W Hewers, Tom, and the girls, at work ruling and stitching my ruled books for the Muster maisters’.

(The Diary of Samuel Pepys – 16 April 1666)

Scribes and stationers also produced such paper books. Dr Williams’s Library, in Bloomsbury, London, holds many examples of sewn and stitched paper books prepared by professionals, as well as some made by scholars or members of the household.

Owen Stockton (circa 1630-1680) regularly used pins to fasten together his sermon notes.  Two years after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, as an ejected Nonconformist minister he was engaged in itinerant preaching. His surviving dated sermons cover a time span of twenty-two years, starting in 1656. Stockton’s practice was to fold neatly a sheet of paper three times to create eight leaves (16 pages). He would then insert a single pin exactly along the inside of the spine fold, roughly in the centre, creating an octavo booklet. His pin usually pierced the paper three times, and he always tucked the point of the pin between the leaves, rendering it harmless to himself or any other reader (see Fig. 1). The pins vary in size (18 mm – 24 mm) but are all white pins likely to have been purchased by his wife, Elianor. Stockton made these booklets for ease of carrying and probably for use in the pulpit. They are rare survivors of pinned sermons.

Giscombe fig01

Fig. 1 An example from Dr Williams’s Library: The Stockton Sermons: DWL MS: 28.31

Although the pins were removed from the papers of Richard Baxter (1615-1691) many years ago, evidence of their use remains. Unlike Stockton, Baxter used his pins in a haphazard way, often to add fragments of paper where corrections were made or additional text was necessary. Of his many writings, his correspondence in particular reveals the use of pins. It is the oxidation of the tin used to coat the brass pin that leaves a stain. The digital photograph below (see Fig. 2) shows evidence which points to the way two folded sheets of a long letter were once united with a pin. The letter from Katherine Gell (bap.1624-d.1671) to Baxter is dated 29th April 1657. Baxter kept many of the letters he received, and made copies of his own. He had no set practice when it came to retaining them: some were folded and tied with ribbons or string, while others were pinned together, as with Katherine Gell’s.

Giscombe fig02

Fig. 2 Dr Williams’s Library: Richard Baxter’s Correspondence: DWL RB/2/v-3, 5

Information about the everyday use of pins in early modern England has almost been lost due to overzealous librarians, archivists and conservators who have automatically removed them, assuming them to be a potential cause of harm to the manuscripts and their readers. In reality, for the purposes of preservation and handling in a library, brass pins only need to be removed if they are definitely causing harm to a manuscript or if their points are sharp enough to draw blood from a reader.

Giscombe fig03

Fig. 3 Seventeenth-century pins which have been removed from the Baxter manuscripts

Such manuscripts should be kept in good storage conditions away from damp and light. If it is deemed necessary to remove pins, they should first be photographed in situ and appropriately stored and dated (see Fig. 3). Archaeologists find it difficult to date pins merely from observation, because their construction and design have remained the same for many years. Only invasive and destructive analytical testing of the metal elemental composition of a brass pin will help determine the era in which the pin was made. Yet archives clearly enable the dating of pins, as with Stockton’s sermons.

The question, therefore, is: are we justified in removing pins from manuscripts and, if we do remove them, are we creating an unnecessary barrier for ourselves in understanding the workings of the early modern world?

Jane Giscombe is an accredited conservator, specialising in preventive conservation at Dr Williams’s Library, London. She studied bookbinding and conservation at Camberwell College of Art and Sir John Cass School of Art and, in addition, has an MA in the History of the Book, from London University. She is at present leading a major project at Dr Williams’s Library to make better known DWL’s foundation collection which is, at heart, an early modern collection of works from all over Europe.  


Chris Caple, ‘Factors in the Production of Medieval and Post-Medieval Brass Pins’ in Trade and Discovery: the Scientific Study of Artefacts from Post-Medieval Europe and  Beyond, D. Hook and D. Gaimster (eds), 1995.

Ian M Green, ‘Continuity and Change in Protestant Preaching in Early Modern England’  in Friends of Dr Williams’s Library Sixtieth Lecture 2009.

OED: Oxford English Dictionary.

The Diary of Samuel Pepys.

Margaret Spufford, The Great Reclothing of Rural England: Petty Chapmen and Their Wares in the Seventeenth Century, 1984.

Linked image: A painting of Elizabeth Vernon, Countess of Southampton (c 1600). This painting is held in the private collection of the Duke of Buccleuch and Queensberry:


11 thoughts on “The use of pins in early modern England (1450-1700)

  1. Thank you for your comment. The importance of the simple straight pin as a fastener at that time cannot be overstated. It would be good to have an exhibition (at least on-line) of paper fasteners through the centuries.


  2. Thank you for your question. Straight pins were used well into the twentieth century but overlapped with the first paper clips sometime in the late nineteenth century. I have not studied paper clips in any depth.


  3. What an intriguing read. The exploration of this small detail of book history adds to the fascination of the discipline.


  4. Thank you for this interesting blog. I have only come across pins being used for later (c19th century) documents such as letters or sermons. In some cases there was damage to the paper. How can you ensure pins which have not yet caused damage don’t do so in future?


  5. I suppose the staple has replaced the pin in today’s world, but anyone who has tried to remove a staple by hand to alter the contents of a document will now probably wish they had thought of using a pin.


  6. An imaginative and useful insight into how papers were handled, but also potentially into how to date pinned collections when there is little other evidence.


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