” … purchase me a bundle of pins … “

This excerpt is the end of a letter (16 June 1775) that Abigail Adams, in Weymouth, wrote to John who was in Philadelphia attending the Continental Congress.

I have a request to make you. Something like the Barrel of Sand suppose you will think it, but really of much more importance to me. it is that you would send out Mr. Bass & purchase me a bundle of pins & put in your trunk for me—the cry for pins is so great that what we used to Buy for 7.6 are now 20 Shillings & not to be had for that. a bundle contains 6 thousand for which I used to give a Dollor—but if you can procure them for 50 [shillings] or 3 pound, pray let me have them—Mr Welch who carries this to head Quarters awaits which prevents my adding more than that I am with the tenderest Regard
your Portia

Reading this passage for the first time I tried to imagine what Abigail wanted pins for. I assumed they had something to do with sewing clothing. I didn’t realize that they were “dress pins” used to fasten garments together while they were being worn. Women of this period usually wore several layers of clothing. There was first of all a loose shift (which served as an undergarment), overlaid with stays, and perhaps a padded hoop, after which came one or more petticoats, and then a gown open at the front (revealing the petticoat) with a bodice with sleeves, or perhaps removable ones. Gowns often featured stomachers, stiffened, triangular decorative panels designed to cover gaps, smooth the front of the bodice, and accentuate the cone shape of the upper body. How were these garments held together? There were of course buttons, hooks and eyes, and laces, but these were bulky solutions and not suitable for all purposes. Remember there were no safety pins (not invented until 1849), or snap fasteners (1885), or zippers (1893), not to speak of Velcro. The answer is that garments were fastened together with straight pins, inserted vertically at the seams to be virtually invisible, and shallowly so as not to prick the skin. Sometimes the pins were brass as these did not rust, but steel was preferred because points were sharper. They usually came in paper packets of two or three dozen. (Interestingly straight pins have been found in archaeological digs as fasteners for shrouds of corpses.) During the Revolution pins were in short supply as they were imported from Britain, hence the increase in price referred to in Abigail’s letter.

I finally pinned this one down!

Sources: Adams Electronic Archive, letter of Abigail Adams to John Adams, 16 June 1775.

posted September 3rd, 2012 by Janet, CATEGORIES: Adams, Abigail, Clothes, Fashion

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