Making Light: The meditations of a powerless artisan…

As I noted on Facebook, sunset yesterday for the Puget Sound area was at 4:32 pm. Which meant I was standing over a boiling pot of bones in the freezing rain and dark of night. I told my wife that if it started snowing or sleeting, the US Post Office would be sending me a paycheck. Needless to say, I was thanking my stars I had a warm home to retreat to when I was finished.

I managed to make that observation via Facebook minutes before the power went out.

I burn the candle at both ends, I’d light the middle if I could…

The Engineer and I had headlamps, warm blankets, and lots of books to read. It wasn’t that big a deal; these things happen when you live on an island. Contemplate, though, a world in which that situation isn’t just a vexing part of life in the country, but a daily aspect of your life. An obstacle to every effort you make to get food on the table. For the sake of comparison, sunset in London yesterday (a few points north of here) was 4:07 pm. Thirty minutes earlier (relative to their GPS coordinates, of course).

It certainly illustrates a knotty problem for working class schmoes in a time before Edison and his light bulb made lighting well nigh a civil right rather than a luxury.

I wasn’t going to really get into this until we got to the Chandlers’ companies, but I see that fickle fate had other plans.

Fine work like pinmaking, embroidery, and sewing was heavily dependent upon the available light. If you imagine a work space lit by lanterns or torches or anything you might see come out of Hollywood, you’d be wrong. Tallow candles and rush lights give off a dim, flickering and smokey light at the best of times.  A rush light is a piece of straw dipped in animal fat and held in a metal clip as it burned.  Fitful light at best. Beeswax candles were beyond the reach of humble pinners. If you picture children and small-fingered adults clambering onto windowsills and jockeying for the best of the available light, you’d be closer to the mark.

Yes, most pinners were children. As Tony Robinson noted in that TV show I mentioned the other day (“Worst Jobs in History: Tudors“) this pin making thing is an incredibly fiddly business and small, dextrous fingers are necessary to do it well. I spoke with one of the researchers he used and she made it clear that it was work that was often done by children, but mostly by the poor and desperate, quite often by crippled soldiers.

Rachel Jardine, who worked with Robinson on this episode of his television series (you can see her name in the credits as “special thanks”), contacted me via Facebook and kindly provided some of her research into pin making in the early modern period. I am still poring over most of it, but what I have digested thus far is amazing.

“In the constant protestations of the Pinners in the early seventeenth century that many ‘poore and impotent people’ gain employment through pinmaking, that lame soldiers, children and cripples find this their only means of employment it is similarly made clear that the majority of pinners are extremely poor.[1] It is therefore unclear what extent the technological developments which occurred during the sixteenth century were adopted for widespread use. It seems likely that most pinmaking continued to operated using the simplest of tools.”

“Pinning down production: Pin manufacture, technology and the market c.1500-1610″  by Rachel Jardine

[1]See, for instance, BL Cotton MS Titus BIV f. 304/314, Lansdowne MS 84, no. 21.


I think I’ve expired the length of blog post that my waning laptop battery will allow, so that’s all for tonight. More from Rachel’s amazing research and on the process of pinning this weekend.

The bones are de-fleshed, boiled, and scraped. Now they are sitting in an antiseptic solution that will also bleach them white (health & safety). They should be ready to start making pins soon.

– Scott

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