On April 10, 1849, a New Yorker by the name of Walter Hunt was granted patent Number 6,281 for a device he called the safety pin. Never heard of Walter Hunt, you say? Well, Hunt was not destined to be pinned with the tag “inventor of the safety pin” for one simple reason: The safety pin, or devices virtually identical to it, had been in use for more than 2,500 years, since the days of ancient Greece!
The earliest fasteners used by man were straight pins, usually simple thorns. Relics of prehistoric man 20,000 years old include bone needles with eyes, and pins with decorated heads. The art of pin making actually predates agriculture, pottery, and metalworking.
The Egyptians didn’t use the safety pin or button, but they did fashion straight pins and needles from metal. Bronze pins eight inches long have been found in Egyptian tombs, many with decorated gold heads.
Every period of classical Greece and Rome had its own forms of safety pin and clasp. In fact, the forms of each period were so distinctive that a safety pin can frequently be used to accurately date an entire archaeological find. During some periods, safety pin-heads commonly took the form of serpents, horses, and lutes; other periods produced heads with abstract designs.
Homer tells us that a dozen safety pins were presented to Penelope, the wife of Odysseus by her suitors, suggesting that the Greeks considered pins fitting gifts, even for royalty. Presumably, almost all early Greeks used safety pins to fasten their tunics, since the button wasn’t to arrive from Asia Minor until considerably later.
Athenian women used long, dagger-like pins to fasten their chitons over their shoulders. According to Herodotus, when a group of angry women used the pins to stab to death an Athenian soldier, the city forbade the wearing of all but the Ionian tunic, which did not require pins. The law was later revoked; but by then, women were using buttons and safety pins.
The Romans called the safety pin fibula, a term still used for a clasp and also for a certain leg bone. A bust from the late Empire shows a consul wearing a tunic fastened by two safety pins as long as his head, suggesting that in Rome the size of a fibula may have indicated rank.
The Goths who overran the Roman Empire used straight pins, made most often from horn or bone, to fasten their mantles over their shoulders.
In Medieval Europe, the wealthy used elaborately fashioned safety pins of ivory, brass, silver, and gold, while the poor had to make do with simple wood skewers. By the fifteenth century, pins were being manufactured from drawn iron wire, and a pin-making industry was well established in France.
But for centuries, metal pins remained rare and costly items reserved for the rich. You’ve heard the expression pin money, meaning a small sum allotted by a husband for his wife’s use, or money for incidental items. Well, when the term originated in the fourteenth century, “pin money” was just that, for at the time, pins were expensive enough to be real items in the budget. By custom, a husband would present his wife on the first or second of January with enough money to buy her pins for the year. “Pin money” went by the boards in the nineteenth century, when mass-production made pins the inexpensive purchase they are today.
The father of the American pin industry was Samuel Slocum, who in 1838, founded a pin factory in Poughkeepsie, New York, capable of turning out 100,000 pins a day. Though Slocum was not the first to design a machine for manufacturing pins, his pins were the first to be mass-produced in this country. Slocum’s pins had solid heads, and came to be known as Poughkeepsie pins. Slocum was also the first to devise a machine for packaging pins in grooved paper boards.
There’s another reason why Walter Hunt is forgotten as the “inventor” of the safety pin. The would-be pin magnate rather hastily conceived his idea, made a model, and sold his patent rights for the sum of $100, all within three hours! In any case, diaper-wearing babies have expressed their gratitude ever since, with hours of sob-free slumber.
The nineteenth century was the big era for fasteners of all kinds. Buttons are thousands of years old, but it wasn’t until 1863 that Louis Hannart invented the snap.
And 1896 saw the first patent for a “slide fastener,” a device invented five years earlier by Witcomb Judson as a “clasp locker and unlocker for shoes.” The term we use today, zipper, originally referred only to a boot equipped with a slide fastener.
Judson, a Chicago inventor, became so tired of lacing and unlacing his high boots that he set out to devise a quicker, easier way of fastening them. At first, he peddled his invention door-to-door as the C-Curity Placket Fastener, using the slogan “Pull and It’s Done.” But Jucison’s zipper, a series of hooks and eyes, was crude by modern standards, and tended to open or stick.
Judson eventually sold his patent rights to Lewis Walker, who with the aid of a Swede named Gideon Sundback developed the first modern zipper in 1906. Zippers began to appear on tobacco pouches, mailbags, and galoshes around 1920; but by and large, the garment industry regarded the zipper as a passing fad. At the time, the only garments fitted with zippers were theatrical costumes for quick-change artists.
The 1930’s saw the development of an improved zipper, with the metal teeth die cast directly onto the zipper tape fabric. Die cast teeth with rounded edges made the zipper completely dependable for the first time. Soon, everyone was using zippers for both fastening and decoration. Zippers with multi-colored teeth were especially popular for a time. Today, zippers are used for everything from apparel and luggage to coverings for tanks and guns.
Those of you who are presently struggling with torn, toothless, or unlockable zippers might be interested to know that modern zipper manufacturers claim their products can withstand 200,000 openings and closings without showing signs of wear. Tell it to the marines!