A completely unnecessary history of the safety pin

The “Fibula Prenestina” is a gold pin that features the classic curved bar that secures itself within a golden mask from the 7th century b.C. The most interesting bit about this little item is not the prove of how the shape of the safety pin has not changed that dramatically over the centuries, but it shows us one of the oldest examples of ancient Latin;  It quite blatantly says “Manio gave it to me for my birthday”’ proving nonetheless that a nice little pin has been a classic gift-idea for the past 2700 years or so.

The pin in the shape of a brooch existed since the bronze age, and it has been untouched until pretty much the sixth century a.C, when it started decaying for reasons possibly linked to a brisk change in fashion and clothing.

In 1849, William Hunt patents the safety pin as we know it today, and even this little story over here has some interesting behind-the-scenes, because it appears that Hunt (American inventor born in 1796) patented and sold this brilliant idea just because in need of cash liquidity, and give 15 dollars back to a friend of his.

Here we are again, the safety pin proves to be an item that brings a temporary solution whatever the case. Hunt’s genius in patenting something that has been around since the bronze age, however, is another story.  Oh. And we also want to remember him as the inventor of the tram bell (Yes, he patented a bell. Genius).

Going back to the “Fibula Prenestina” and all the other kinds of ancient pins, they were definitely more similar to ornamental brooches and small jewels than the little utilitarian superhero we came to know in recent times, but still the diffusion must have been epidemic, if one thinks of ancient drapes and peplums.  Because of its popularity, the opinions regarding its role within superstition and folklore, are conflicting:

If one hand we say it brings good luck, as it is the main item we pin religious images onto our clothes, on the other hand we also say it brings horrible luck, and if someone ever gives us safety pin (say, for our birthday as lovely Manio did thousands years ago) we immediately need to use it to sting the person who gave it to us. On another folkloristic level, whoever dreams a safety pin denotes strong managerial skills and has to enter the number 57 when playing lotto.

Good luck or not, wearing a pin on your jacket’s lapel gives you an immediate continental chic aura, but move too quickly, or bend too un-avertedly  and you’ll soon find that yes, a pin hurts, and I’m not referring to misfortune and popular knowledge.  A safety pin, on the other hand, won’t hurt you (unless it opens. In that case it’s hell, I promise you) and because of its “safety”, it is commonly and democratically seen on the poor as well as the super rich, who would never dream of wearing a pin that has no “safety” to it.

On this note, we should remember that Italian jewellery house Damiani dedicated a collection of diamond encrusted safety pins to the late fashion designer Gianfranco Ferré, referring to the habit of the designer to wear a safety pin on his tie, or on the silk square in his jacket’s pocket. In his case the safety pin had no practical use whatsoever, but hey, no one can deny the continental chic aura of the pin as an object d’art.

Trying to trace back a more or less serious history of the safety pin, I chanced upon what I would call the “French Dispute”:  In fact, there is a school of thought that sees the origin of the safety pin as we know it to 18th Century France, but I could not be able to find any reliable sources that prove it.

Probably this has to do with a semantic issue, and it relates to the homonym between ‘Pin’, ‘Brooch’ and ‘Safety Pin’ (in French, ‘Èpingles’). However, I can prove that in southern Italy, for example, the safety pin is called ‘Spingola Francese’.

Anyhow, the are little doubts about the vast democracy of the safety pin:

The nuns with the sweet heart of Jesus tightly pinned to their robes, Punks, whoever likes Punks, whoever speculates on Punks,  little girls who improvise little bijoux by beading their pins, people who just cannot be bothered to sew a button,  Liz Hurley at the premiere of “Four Weddings and a Funeral” (*), Alexander McQueen, the scots with their kilts, the riches, the fake riches, the poors, the fake poors and Gianfranco Ferré

No one denies their own private use of the safety pin. Ok, maybe the fake riches do, but at that stage there is no point in talking about them amongst ourselves, is there?

(*) Just a little note. Liz Hurley’s black dress has its own Wikipedia page. If you don’t believe me I can prove it: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Versace_dress_of_Elizabeth_Hurley

By Claudia A. Sarti

Originally published in Lujon Magazine issue n.1