Before Pinterest: The curious history of the Pinners

Just before Christmas, I received an email back the Museum of London in response to an enquiry I sent them about a list of 111 crafts that existed before the Livery Companies properly got going. I kept hearing about this list and seeing it referenced in books without anyone I could find actually presenting the entire list.

My question was answered patiently and thorough (more than!) by John Clark, retired Senior Curator of the museum’s medieval collection, who sent me the list and links to a couple of books available online (archived as out of copyright) as well as some newer ones, which I have added to the “Library” tab above under a heading for general histories of the guilds.

From Mr. Clark’s email:

“The list was compiled by the Clerk of the Brewers’ Company and included in the company’s records. It is headed (in English – the Brewers were one of the first companies to record their business in English rather than Latin or French):  ‘A list of the names of all the crafts exercised in London from of old, and still continuing in this ninth year of King Henry V [ie 21 March 1421 to 20 March 1422], and here set down in case it may in any wise profit the hall and Company of Brewers.'”

Mr. Clark went on to caution me that the list of 111 was a list of crafts compiled by the Worshipful Company of Brewers for their own uses. There were many such lists of varying length and contrary to what it says in many books, shouldn’t be taken to mean that every craft on the list was represented by an organized guild or that the informal groups were the same as those who were later rolled up into the great livery companies.

It is a mistake, he warned, to assume that craft = guild.

It’s an excellent point. This is a problem that we will encounter more than once on this journey, I think. The histories of many of the great and even lesser companies are so convoluted even they cannot say for certain in many cases whence they came. The Founderers, for instance were founded by God, apparently. I assume the Fruiterers claim Adam (though they should probably claim Eve) and the Cutlers even have a song about how they came about because Eve wanted apple slices.

But we will get to all of those great and might folks later. First, I want to talk about the Pinners, the makers of metal pins for sewing and dressing.

It might seem odd to begin with pin making for this project. It’s not glamorous, elegant, or even all that difficult.  The Pinners are not even one of the Livery Companies, or rather not one of the ones named on my list of 54 (they were a small part of the Girdler’s for awhile). But we will begin with them nonetheless because the illustrate the mercurial nature of trade in the 16th century.

Pins seem simple enough. The bog standard Tudor pin could be cast, but they were more generally made by wrapping a small ball of thin brass wire around a long, hardened brass pin. The ball was crimped and/or soldered to one end to form the head and the other end was sharpened with a file. There were, as always, finer and lesser pins: Jeweled, enameled, and precious metal pins for the gentry, but most were basically variations of that relatively simple formula.

The pin makers were not wealthy. They were not powerful. And it was not because pins were not in demand. In a time before velcro, snaps, or zippers, pins were an absolute necessity. The term ‘pin money’ didn’t mean idle spending cash, it meant the money set aside to buy hand-made pins. Some of them were quite beautiful and ornate.

The ascendancy of Elizabeth I was the ascendancy of ever more elaborate costume including the elaborate ruffs, and the demand for pins was all the greater as the 16th century advanced. The more elaborate the ruff, the more pins that were needed to keep it stable and pretty.

And yet, it seems that the fortunes of England’s pinners fell rather than rose along with demand. You see, the marketplace was flooded with cheaper pins of better quality from France. Successive administrations from Henry VIII through Elizabeth I enacted protections against the dumping of foreign pins on English markets, but it was for naught.

“In 1543 Henry VIII made a move to control the quality of pins produced in England in hopes that English pins of high quality would prove more desirable than the imported items: ‘No person shall put to sale any pinnes butonly such as shall be double headed and have the heads soldered fast to the shank of the pinnes, well smoothed, the shank well shapen, the point well and round filed, canted and sharpened.'” 

From: Findings: The Material Culture of Needlework & Sewing by Mary C. Baudry

Pin makers most likely began as one of these not-quite-a-guild independent trade associations that sprang up in the early 15th century. In 1497 they officially combined forces with the Wiresellers upon whom they were dependent for materials anyway. This continued until 1511 when both were consumed by the Girdlers, becoming subordinate members of that society.

Royal interventions in the market like those mentioned in Caple’s book, banning the import of foreign pins by Henry VIII and again by Elizabeth, were well-intentioned, but fell short of the glory. Henry’s quality demands for soldered heads put the pin makers in daily contact with very toxic materials and slowed production. The consumers kept buying the contraband foreign pins and since the poor pinners had to pay for the enforcement of their monopoly (as was done with most guild monopolies) it failed to pull them out of their slump.

However, the price of pins plummeting, they already could not afford to enforce their monopoly until 1579 when the wire-drawers/girdlers cut them loose. Pinners should have been wealthy, but they never seemed to get their feet under them sufficiently to really parlay the need for their product into real success.

Tudor pinners had it bad enough that they were chosen by Tony Robinson for his television show “The Worst Jobs in History” for the Tudor era, which is pretty high up on the universal list of dubious distinctions.

It would not be until automation and mass production that the humble art of pin making could make enough pin money to make anyone truly wealthy. And when it came, that person wasn’t a pinner at all, but the inventor of a machine.

They were the humblest of the humble and yet, they quite literally held the whole of Tudor society together. Something in my quixotic nature is drawn to that. And so it is with them that we will begin.

This project includes a firm grounding in:

  • Tools (files and materials safety)
  • Wire-drawing and brassworks,
  • We will make a pinner’s bone,
  • We will approximate a cold forge for pinheads,
  • And finally, we will make some pins!

A great and special thank you to John Clark, Curator Emeritus at the Museum of London, for his kind assistance and patience with the questions I tossed across the Atlantic in hopes of finding a kind and scholarly ear for them to land on. Thank you sir. You are too kind.

– Scott

Post Script:  Here is the list of 111 trades recorded by the Brewers Company from the appendices of George Unwin’s book The Gilds and Companies of London (Published 1908 and out of copyright in the United States) provided my Mr. Clark.  You can read the full book at

edited 8/16/2016 to correct quote attribution and provide a link to the Findings book. – Scott


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