Sponsored by Beloit Auction & Realty

By Meghan M.M. Trimm

I recently became intimately acquainted with a collection of almost one thousand hatpins. In cataloging and learning to describe them, I found myself immersed in Mrs. Baker’s Encyclopedia of Hatpins—the foremost text on the subject. She outlines not only the pins themselves, but the very interesting history attached to them. Here are the most interesting ten things you didn’t know about hatpins.

1. Hatpins were a sign of significance…until they weren’t.

The hand-made hatpins of the late 1600’s through the early 1800’s were fine pieces of jewelry which took up to 10 skilled artisans to craft. These hatpins were for the elite and are considered precursors to “period hatpins.”

Early machine-made hatpins were simple brass shafts with glass orbs for heads. Often when shopping for hatpins, the simpler glass pins prove to be the oldest. These early machines were not efficient, and are also considered pre-period.
The invention in 1832 of a viable hatpin machine gave rise to the craze. The 1830’s through 1910’s hatpins were worn for every occasion by every woman of modest to extravagant means. Hatpins became an essential and exciting part of dressing. Pins made statements. Period pins were an affordable luxury.

2. Not Only Shiny, But Purposeful

In the main period-years hatpins were essential to keep a lady’s hat on her head and also sometimes to fasten feathers or flowers to the hat. They were sometimes accompanied by hair pins (which held locks of fake curls to a lady’s head) and by veil pins (which were small elegant pins which attached a veil to a hat). Think Hello Dolly.

3. “The Bigger the Hat, the Bigger the Hatpin”

Hats during this time were often elaborate and sometimes very large. With the onset of ‘the great war’ fabric was in short supply. Hats got much smaller, and pins became smaller and therefore less essential. By the 1930’s they were worn entirely for display.

4. Stirring up Trouble – And Taking Out Eyeballs

Worn at lengths from six to twelve inches, hatpin shafts of the Edwardian and Victorian era often stuck out beyond the elaborate hats. As you can imagine with the industrial revolution in full swing, hatpins proved troublesome on trolleys, trams, subways and in other crowded places. Hatpins were responsible for the occasional loss of an eye. Yes, literally.

Soon newspaper editorials in many cities denounced hatpins as dangerous and frivolous implements. Then laws prohibiting hatpins began to crop up in the later 1800’s. Women fought back, of course, and the hatpin craze persisted with a few adjustments.

In some places hat pins could be worn only if the length was cut to six inches. This is why you will occasionally find hatpins without points. These are often shorter than their counterparts. Finally, the controversy led to the invention of the “nib.” A plug stuck on the end of the pin prevented it from doing any damage.

Some collectors view cut or dulled pins as damaged. However, these adjustments authenticate the time they were worn and also, tell the story of the pin’s controversial history.

5. Weapons of Choice

Nibs or not, the suffragettes of England were prohibited from wearing hatpins due to an incident in jail where the pins were used as weapons in a scuffle. These ladies meant business.

In the 1860’s police in Minneapolis encouraged women to use their hatpins if they were attacked. It was said that a stick in the gut with a pin would “double a man over.” Still there is not much evidence to suggest women used their costume jewelry as weapons, and yet by the 1940’s hatpins had inherited the nick-name “women’s weapons.”

Due to their reputation, Victorian laws were adopted labeling hatpins as concealed weapons if they were found in a purse or a pocket.

Another famous incident of hatpin weaponry was not by a woman user. It took place in Los Angeles. A serial killer, “Jabber Jerry,” stalked and murdered women; hatpins were determined to be the cause of death.

6. Clinching the Deal

“Pin-money” was a term used to refer to the allowance a man gave his wife to buy non-essentials such as hatpins.

Later the term “pin-money’ came to refer to the money thrown in to sweeten a business deal. Supposedly this gift of good faith was intended to say, “…And buy your wife and daughters a nice hat pin too.” This gesture “pinned” the deal.

7. You Can Get Anything You Want… in the Sears Catalog

Hatpins were sold in shops of course, but one of the most popular ways to get a new pin was from a catalog. While there were others, possibly the most recognizable publication, now, is the Sears Catalog. Pages and pages of the catalog were devoted to pin styles—usually “imported Parisian styles.” Mrs. Baker chalks that up to “snob-appeal.”

In the true spirit of capitalism that was emerging in the same era, catalogs sometimes featured pins which were not well liked. Those would not be found in later catalogs and would be replaced with new designs.

8. Instructions Not Included

To my surprise – and Mrs. Baker’s – there seems to have never been written instructions for how to insert a hatpin. This was something women most likely taught other women– mothers and sisters and possibly the secret skill of a lady’s maid.

9. Three Period Styles

a. Edwardian & Victorian Hatpins

Pins of these eras usually had brass shafts with elaborate heads, including silver, gold, gold-plated filigree, rhinestone, precious gems, elaborate metalwork, and all kinds of themes. From the very elegant to sporting events, to family crests, to souvenirs, women bought and wore hatpins for every occasion.

b. Art Nouveau Hatpins

Art Nouveau hatpins took off in 1897 after an art exhibition in Boston and reached their height in 1905. The trend overlapped with Victorian and Art Deco designs, but was extremely prolific. Art Nouveau pins featured smooth curves and themes of nature, including human figures and faces, flowers, animals, and celestial designs.

Art Nouveau pins were made possible by advances in machinery. They were often intricately detailed.

c. Art Deco Hatpins

Begun in 1900 in Paris, Art Deco Hatpins were the Modern Art answer to Art Nouveau. They reflected the architecture of the times often featuring geometric designs, some with curves and color. Unlike Art Nouveau, which seemed to center around intricate detail, Art Deco hatpins could range from finely detailed to simple—and yet bold—statement pieces. This trend lasted throughout the 1940’s!

10. A Future in Plastics: Bakelite & Celluloid

An early plastic was employed in the hatpin industry as early as the 1860’s in France. Celluloid was comprised of not much more than glue and saw dust. It often had a natural amber color, which paint could be added to. The process was improved, eventually celluloid earned the knick-name “French Ivory.”

Bakelite was another version of early plastic, often used on electrical equipment and telephones. It found its way to the hatpins market as well.

These plastics, being more efficient to mold then metal, were popular in many Art Nouveau and Art Deco hatpins.

Hatpins were present through some of the most important turning points of Western History. They raised a ruckus and were forgotten by history, much like the women who wore them. While hatpins are gorgeous and interesting in-and-of their own merit, studying hatpins reminds me of the interesting stories and fantastic history of the people – the women – who lived through the American Civil War, rebelled in Russia, experienced the industrial revolution, lost someone in World War One, and won the right to vote. What a wonderful trifle.
See you at the auction!