As seen on BBC TV's 'Great Antiques Hunt'
Winner, 1996

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From our last column on shoe ornaments, we ascend now to the lofty heights of Hair Jewelry.  The breathtaking Roman pin at right, carved from bone, dates from the first century and we can reasonably assume that, even before recorded history, women were using similarly formed (though less elegant) items to arrange their hair and secure their headgear.

Such pins enjoyed a heyday in the Middle Ages, when veils and wimples adorned all proper ladies.  The one below, also carved from bone, appears to date from that era.

Bone hairpin topped by the figure of a crowned queen.  

Far more commonly collected are the pins crafted in great profusion during Victorian times.   Through the intervening centuries, while gentlemen communicated their status by wearing hats, ladies’ head coverings were hoods, caps fastened with tiny pins and bonnets tied under the chin by ribbons or strings.  These strings became so symbolic of womanly style that early feminists rushed to get rid of them.  Freedom from “bonnet strings” was identified with the drive for equality, no less than the bra burnings that ensued 150 years later.  Some historians actually theorize that the women’s suffrage movement began with the invention of the pin-making machine in 1832.

Producing functional and decorative pins was a thriving cottage industry at the start of the 19th century and these handcrafted pins were so costly and treasured that stealing them was a hanging offense and they were cited specifically in bequests.  Despite their high price, demand in England skyrocketed.  By 1820, French imports threatened the balance of trade, so Parliament restricted the sale of pins to just two days annually (January 1st and 2nd). In order to spend lavishly on those dates, ladies saved all year, which was the probable origin of the phrase "pin money".  Another possible source of the term was that Queen Victoria taxed her subjects at the start of each year to pay for her pins, but she didn’t ascend the throne until 1837. By then, pin-making machinery patented in the U.S. in 1832 was also operating on a large scale in England and France.

Not everyone was pleased for the process to become less labor-intensive, though.
For instance, Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote:

Let us be content, in work
To do the thing we can, and not presume
To fret because it’s little. ‘Twill employ
Seven men, they say, to make a perfect pin:
Who makes the head, content to miss the point:
Who makes the point, agreed to leave the join:
And if a man should cry ‘I want a pin,
And I must make it straightaway, head and point,’
His wisdom is not worth the pin he wants.
Seven men to a pin and not a man too much.

There was no holding back the Industrial Revolution, though – nor the growing ranks of Suffragettes, who wouldn’t tie on a bonnet on a bet! When we admire the gorgeous hatpins worn between the 1830s and 1920s, it’s poignant to remember that these were much more than fashion statements.

Although they quickly evolved into ornate jewels, the first commercially produced hatpins were simple skewers of base metal with tapering tips, ranging from about four inches to a foot long. Various sizes were required for different types of hats and the pins were often worn in pairs or larger groups.   So-called “sportin’ women” who enjoyed vigorous activities ran pins in opposing directions through their wide-brimmed sailor hats and puffed hair or Psyche knots, and soon their hatpins were sportin’ end pieces shaped like golf clubs, horseshoes and hockey sticks. Others expressed more sedate tastes with ornaments such as musical instruments, animals, sea shells, sparkling paste stones or sequins, fabric rosettes, mosaics, filigree balls or crested porcelain buttons.  Ladies at the top end of the market opted for silver or gold pins embellished with cameos, enameled and gilded Satsuma-ware accents or gemstones including topaz, garnet, cairngorm, amethyst, jet, moonstone and pearl.

The finest hatpins frequently have adjustable ends, allowing their gemstone ornaments to swivel toward light, regardless of how the pin is inserted.  Some even hold containers that screw open to reveal a tiny mirror and powder puff or a vinaigrette filled with smelling salts. Among the most famous makers were Charles Horner of Halifax in England and, in the U.S., the Unger Brothers, William Link, Paye & Baker and Tiffany.   Crested porcelain button ends by Goss are particularly well regarded.

As the hatpin craze grew, fueled by increased availability, hats grew, too.  Inspired by music hall performers Lillian Russell and Lily Langtry (aka Diamond Lil and Jersey Lil), headwear took on enormous proportions and was secured by the super-huge 18” pins of the late 19th century and early 20th centuries.  These caused numerous accidents, including the blinding of at least one shopper during a frenzied sale.  Legislation was passed in reaction to this trend:  In some areas, point covers were mandated for the longest pins, or their allowable length was restricted in public places.  By 1908, they were widely considered deadly weapons. An English judge, fearing attack in his court, insulted Suffragettes on trial by demanding they remove their hats and pins.

Young girls were in fact encouraged to think of their pins in these terms, as recorded by this rather bawdy Cockney music hall ballad, NEVER GO WALKING OUT WITHOUT YOUR HAT PIN:

My Granny was a very shrewd old lady,
The smartest woman that I ever met.
She used to say, "Now listen to me, Sadie,
There's one thing that you never must forget."

Never go walking out without your hat pin.
The law won't let you carry more than that.
For if you go walking out without your hat pin,

You may lose your head as well as lose your hat."

My Granny said men never could be trusted.
No matter how refined they might appear.
She said that many maidens' hearts got busted
Because men never had but one idea.

I've heard that Grandpa really was a mess,
So Grandma knew whereof she spoke, I guess.

Never go walking out without your hat pin.
Not even to some very classy joints.
For when a fellow sees you've got a hat pin
He's very much more apt to get the point.

My Mama, too, set quite a bad example.
She never heeded Grandmama's advice.
She found that if you give a man a sample,
The sample somehow never does suffice.

In fact, it's rumored I might not have been
If Mum had not gone out without her pin.

Never go walking out without your hat pin.
It's about the best protection you have got.
For if you go walking out without your hat pin,

You may come home without your you-know-what!

Feathers featured on this era’s overlarge hats became an issue, as well.  Hunters supplying them to milliners had devastated more than 60 bird species by 1913, when The Audubon Society was formed to lead an outcry. Soon World War I led to more austerity and practicality in dress; hats got smaller and pin styles ran to the patriotic (such as button ends with regimental crests).  After the war, the discovery of King Tut’s tomb briefly prompted creation of hatpins in the Egyptian Revival manner but, by the 1920s, women had won the vote and greater independence generally, besides their hair was cropped short and better suited to close-fitting cloche hats.

Having gone out of fashion, hatpins proceeded to become coveted pieces of the past.  From a collecting standpoint, by far the most important thing to bear in mind about them is how easy it is to fake an antique jewel of this nature.  Being no expert in this arena, which requires highly detailed knowledge of materials, design, weight and construction, my best recommendation is that you buy these only from reputable dealers who’ve made hatpins a specialty.  According to sources I’ve read, it’s likely that only 10 percent of hatpins sold on eBay are authentic, and fakes often sell there for $300 to $1,000.

This rampant fakery takes several forms:  fantasies (resembling nothing from the period and called in the trade “beads on a stick”), reproductions (using new materials and methods) and marriages (combining stems, tops and/or findings that didn’t begin life together).  If you’re serious about informing yourself, I understand that the ultimate book on the subject is Lillian Baker’s The Collector's Encyclopedia of Hatpins and Hatpin Holders, which is loaded with pictures suitable for careful study.  Unfortunately, it dates from 1976 and now is out of print and rather hard to find.  There are also hatpin societies, both in the U.S. and U.K., making extremely useful information available to members.


Excellent examples of fake hatpins are shown at
and a few esteemed dealers I’m aware of are these:
The Hatpin Gallery -
Favorite Past-Times Antiques -

Lady A Antiques -
Antique Connection -

If interested in carnival glass, you may also want to see these splendid examples of common and uncommon types:

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