The fibula later evolved into the brooch, a decorative jewelry item used to fasten men’s cloaks and adorn women’s dress and hair. With its ornate, highly crafted designs, the brooch functioned almost exclusively as a status symbol for the wearer. Both the fibula and the brooch are historic examples of conspicuous consumption, a term coined by the economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen in his 1899 book, The Theory of the Leisure Class, to describe the practice of displaying status and wealth by purchasing expensive, unnecessary items.
But neither accessory protected the user from the pin’s sharp edge. This problem was solved by the American mechanic Walter Hunt, in 1849. Hunt patented the safety pin, which he called a dress pin. The design was ingenious because the pin was constructed from a single measure of wire. Hunt used brass, coiled it at the center and formed a clasp on one end, shielding the wearer. As Hunt wrote in the patent, “Another great advantage unknown in other plans is found in the perfect convenience of inserting these into the dress, without danger of bending the pin, or wounding the fingers, which renders them equally adapted to either ornamental, common dress or nursery uses.”
Metal pins were expensive for centuries. Women were given “pin money” by their husbands to purchase pins for their dresses and gowns. According to Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, published in 1870, “Long after the invention of pins, in the fourteenth century, the maker was allowed to sell them in open shop only on January 1st and 2nd. It was then that the court ladies and city dames flocked to the depots to buy them, having been first provided with money by their husbands.”
In the 19th century, mechanization made safety pins easier to produce, eventually driving prices down. In time, pin money expanded its meaning, covering clothing and other personal expenses. The term is still used today to refer to money used for spending on inessentials.
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The safety pin’s life has been long but mostly modest; for more than a century, it quietly retained its original purpose, fastening pieces of fabric and items of clothing together. But that humility was broken when the safety pin made its way to popularity during the punk rock era of the 1970s. In her 2009 book, Punks: A Guide to an American Subculture, Sharon M. Hannon writes that New York style punk fashion consisted of “black straight-leg pants, black leather jackets, short spiky hair, and torn T-shirts held together with safety pins.” This get-up caught on with the punk rock crowd and safety pins became part of the punk culture, even making it into body piercings.
Its punk-rock phase notwithstanding, the safety pin remains culturally traditional. In Ukraine, safety pins are attached to the inside of children’s clothes to ward off evil spirits. In Mexico, a safety pin placed as close as possible to a pregnant woman’s belly is thought to protect her unborn child from loss and diseases. In the Philippines, a safety pin is used to pin charms or amulets on a baby’s clothing to protect against bad fortune.