Adam Smith famously used a pin factory to illustrate the advantages of specialization, Virginia Postrel reminds us — just before the Industrial Revolution really kicked off:
By improving workers’ skills and encouraging purpose-built machinery, the division of labor leads to miraculous productivity gains. Even a small and ill-equipped manufacturer, Smith wrote in The Wealth of Nations, could boost each worker’s output from a handful of pins a day to nearly 5,000.
In the early 19th century, that number jumped an order of magnitude with the introduction of American inventor John Howe’s pin-making machine. It was “one of the marvels of the age, reported on in every major journal and encyclopedia of the time,” writes historian of technology Steven Lubar. In 1839, the Howe factory had three machines making 24,000 pins a day — and the inventor was clamoring for pin tariffs to offset the nearly 25 percent tax that pin makers had to pay on imported brass wire, a reminder that punitive tariffs hurt domestic manufacturers as well as consumers.
Nowadays, we think of straight pins as sewing supplies. But they weren’t always a specialty product. In Smith’s time and for a century after, pins were a multipurpose fastening technology. Straight pins functioned as buttons, snaps, hooks and eyes, safety pins, zippers, and Velcro. They closed ladies’ bodices, secured men’s neckerchiefs, and held on babies’ diapers. A prudent 19th century woman always kept a supply at hand, leading a Chicago Tribune writer to opine that the practice encouraged poor workmanship in women’s clothes: “The greatest scorner of woman is the maker of the readymade, who would not dare to sew on masculine buttons with but a single thread, yet will be content to give the feminine hook and eye but a promise of fixedness, trusting to the pin to do the rest.”
Most significantly, pins fastened paper. Before Scotch tape or command-v, authors including Jane Austen used them to cut and paste manuscript revisions. The Bodleian Library in Oxford maintains an inventory of “dated and datable pins” removed from manuscripts going as far back as 1617.
But a better solution was on its way. In 1899, an inventor in the pin-making capital of Waterbury, Connecticut, patented a “machine for making paper clips.” William Middlebrook’s patent application, observed Henry Petroski in The Evolution of Useful Things, “showed a perfectly proportioned Gem.”
It was that paper clip design that conquered the office and consigned pins to their current home in the sewing basket.