Pincushions were once very practical presents to give, because despite their sharpness, pins were often used as a means of fastening clothes and other textiles together. Originally pins were made by hand, and were quite expensive. Careful householders would keep them safe, sometimes in a special box. Fabric pincushions were in general household use from at least the 16th century, and were also popular as courting and wedding presents or New Year’s gifts.
Layette pincushions like these were once customary presents for a new mother, and were most popular between about 1770 and 1890. They were usually given after the baby had arrived, as there was a superstitious belief that they could increase the pain felt by the mother during birth: ‘For every pin a pain’ and ‘More pins, more pain’. And at a time when many problems could arise during childbirth, some felt that it was taking too much for granted to give birth presents before the baby had safely arrived.
Layette pincushions were in some ways the equivalent of the birth congratulation cards sent today, as the pins were often arranged to show good wishes, sometimes in verse. The most elaborate of these three, dating from 1838 reads
‘Angels guard thee, lovely blossom
Hover round and shield from ill
Crown thy parents’ largest wishes
And their fondest hopes fulfil.’
Shorter messages such as ‘Welcome Sweet Babe’ or ‘Welcome Little Stranger’ (a coy way of referring to an unborn or newborn baby) were more typical. It took considerable skill to form the words and motifs in pins, and mistakes could damage the fabric. On some later examples the words and decoration were drawn in pencil on the surface of the fabric first, something which would be invisible after the pins were stuck in. And this method was almost foolproof after 1878, because closed pins became available, and the pincushions were almost purely decorative and commemorative.
Some of the greetings are chilling reminders of the high numbers of mothers and babies who died during birth: ‘Bless the babe and save the mother’, God bless the babe and may it live and a deal of comfort may it give’. Some others refer to the birth of Jesus ‘May He whose cradle was a manger bless and protect the little stranger’
The popularity of pins to fasten baby clothes in the past is something of a puzzle to modern minds. The custom began hundreds of years ago, at a time when swaddling was in use (the baby was dressed in a nappy and shirt, and then firmly wrapped with linen bands). Pins gave maximum flexibility in clothing a growing child, because a garment could be easily adjusted to fit more loosely. But pins also presented maximum danger, especially as they could be used in large numbers all over the baby. It was easy to stick pins into the child, causing pain, illness or even death . With an older infant the greatest risk was that he or she could remove a pin and swallow it. Most people would agree with Dr Buchan, writing in 1803 ‘It would be safer to fasten the clothes of an infant with strings than pins’. Fortunately, the safety pin (with the sharp point covered) was invented during the 19th century, although it was not available until 1878.