Straight pins have an incredibly simple but hugely important function: secure two or more things together. A sharp point at one end allows penetration between those materials. A “head” at the other end prevents the materials from slipping apart. Pins have been used for thousands of years; there is anthropological evidence that prehistoric people used thorns for this purpose. Ancient Egyptians used bronze to make straight pins. Medieval people in Europe used many materials, including bone, brass, silver, and bronze. However, mass manufacturer of straight pins (the modern design has changed very little since the first assembly-line pins) began in the Industrial Revolution in the eighteenth century.
The economist Adam Smith has written about this early manufacturing process. In his book Wealth of Nations (1776), he describes the five-step manufacturing process. First, a worker draws out a length of wire, another wire then straightens it, followed by a third worker snipped the wire. The fourth sharpened one end and finally, the opposite end was ground so that the head of the pin could be attached. A typical pin factory turned out about 5,000 pins every day.
The most difficult part of early pin manufacturing is (perhaps unsurprisingly) attached the head to the sharpened pin. Fortunately, by the mid-1800s, two Americans, Seth Hunt and John Ireland How worked with two British inventors, Lemuel Wright and Daniel Foote-Taylor. These four inventors came up with a way to produced pins with a head from a solid piece of wire. The pins were made in a factory in Poughkeepsie, New York. This factory was owned by another inventor, Samuel Slocum. The pins soon became known as “Poughkeepsie pins.”
Even though Slocum was making the pins by the thousands, he had not patented the process. It was Howe who ultimately did so. Howe spent a good deal of time watching the tedious hand-making of pins at the New York Alms House, a facility that was part prison, part hospital. He thought he had an idea of how to streamline the process for manufacturing but needed help. He found a man named Robert Hoe to design the machine. In 1832, the pair were successful and Howe patented his machine in June of that year. Howe won a silver medal at the American Institute Fair in New York City for his innovation in manufacturing. The pins still had to be inserted into a paper holder, however, before they could be sold to the public. Howe solved that problem too; he invented a machine to insert the pins into the paper (with help from his employees) in 1843.
Although Howe’s inventions were important, they were not perfect. The nickel-coating on the pins would eventually flake and the pins would rust. Eventually, the nickel was combined with sulfates which kept the pins from rusting.
Today, the humble straight pin is still very important for tailors, seamstresses, and even general household use. They remain the go-to choice when temporary binding of material is needed.