People in the Middle Ages, like the ancients before them, used pins to fasten their clothing. Originally fashioned from wood or bone, pins were eventually made of metal, particularly after the invention of wire drawing. A pin is an apparently uncomplicated item, so it is surprising just how much labour was involved to produce one. Metal, initially iron, had to be drawn out to make wire, cut to length, sharpened to a point at one end and ground at the other where the head would be fixed. The head was made from two turns of wire, joined to the shaft and then turned to finish it off.
During the fifteenth century France led the field in the production of iron pins from drawn wire and by the sixteenth century had begun to manufacture pins from brass wire. The English, who had never produced enough pins for the home market, imported them from the Continent. Brass pins were brought to England from France in 1540 and it is
said that they were first used by Catherine Howard, the wife of Henry VIII. The word pin has its origin in Latin pinna or penna, which meant ‘feather’and also ‘pinnacle’.This latter sense was responsible for the word being borrowed into Old English as pinn to denote ‘a small (pointed) peg’ – for fastening parts of a structure together, for instance, or hanging one thing upon another.
Tile pynnes for the new hous are an item in the church accounts for St Giles in Reading, prepared in 1527. In Sylva (1664), his book on arboriculture, John Evelyn extols the virtues of oak as excellent for … pins and peggs for tyling, &c.Wooden pegs, termed pins, were cylindrical in shape and usually tapered at the end, so that, in the fourteenth century, the word was also applied to the pointed spike which was used to fasten clothing together. Pins assumed such importance in daily life over the centuries, however, that this last application in dress became predominant. Even so, in modern English pin is still also used as a technical term in an extended range of specialist areas: in surgery to connect broken bones, in dentistry to fix a crown, in musical instruments to tune the tension of strings, in weapons to set off a hand grenade, in cooking for an instrument to roll out dough, and even in golf for the metal rod and flag that signals the hole.
One could never have enough pins. In The Evolution of Useful Things (1993), Henry Petroski muses over just how many of these essential little articles must have been dropped by fumbling fingers or have worked loose and fallen unnoticed to the floor during the course of the day’s activity. Production was so slow that medieval pin-makers could not produce enough of their wares to satisfy demand, and a law was passed stating that pins could only be sold on certain days. Scarcity drove up the price and import duties added to their cost. Women from wealthy families often received an allowance for dress — including the necessary expeilsive pins. The following is from a record of wills registered at York (1542):
I give my said daughter Margarett my lease of the parsonadge of Kirkdall Churche … to buy her pynnes withal.
Thus the term pin-money was coined. The idiom continued to denote ‘a sum properly settled upon a wife for her various private expenses’ until the nineteenth century, when pins ceased to be manufactured by hand. With the advent of mechanisation good-quality pins became readily available. As their price fell, so the idiom was devalued to mean nothing more than ‘pocket money’.