I often find myself braking for antique stores, always anticipating an incredible find just inside their doors. When peering through the many glass cases at all of the beautiful vintage sparkle, I will inevitably see a decorated hatpin or two mixed in.
Normally, my eyes would pass right by them but lately, I have decided to take a closer look at the creativity that has gone into designing these old hatpins.
During my most recent excursion, I decided to purchase a couple of these hatpins for myself and then see what I could find out about their history since I knew absolutely nothing about them or how long it had been since they were fashionable. Definitely not during my lifetime!
The History of Hatpins
Using pins to hold a head covering in place dates very far back…as far back as the Middle Ages, beginning in the 1400s. Proper ladies of Europe and Britain used pins to securely hold veils and wimples (garments) to cover their hair.
During the early 1800s, the pins became more decorative as hats became popular. The making of these hatpins was a cottage industry in Britain that employed entire families. Birmingham, the second largest city of the UK, became the center of pin making. They were either ornate or practical and were made from the available materials which included plastics, paste (glass), precious metals, or gemstones.
Hatpins were made for every level of society. They could be elaborate with a high price tag or simple and economical. Because they took so much time to construct, there was never enough of them to keep up with the demand. By 1820, hatpins began to be imported from France as well.
Keeping Up with the Demand
In 1832, an American named John Howe received a U.S. patent for a pin-making machine after seeing how long it took to make them by hand. His design revolutionized the production of straight pins which was eventually used for hatpins. Within the next two years, both England and France also began producing their own machine-made pins. Hatpin holder boxes were also manufactured.
A few of the high-quality hatpin makers in the U.S. were the Unger Bros., Paye & Baker Mfg. Co., and Tiffany & Co.
In 1848, head coverings changed from hats needing hatpins to bonnets that used ribbons and strings tied under the chin to hold them onto the head. By the 1880s, hats became popular once again after women who were a part of the suffrage movement could not wait to untie their bonnet strings and announce their rights for equality with men!
Suffragettes in 1908
During the latter part of the 1800s, “picture hats” became quite fashionable. A picture hat is an elaborate woman’s hat with a wide brim. The name was most likely derived from the way the brim frames the face to create what would look like a picture.
London’s Gaiety Girls helped to popularize picture hats in the 1890s. They were the chorus girls at the Gaiety Theatre produced by George Edwardes:
Gaiety Girls in The Geisha, 1896
These well-behaved young women became a popular attraction and a symbol of ideal womanhood. Thus began the heyday of the hatpin. Picture hats were designed to be worn on top of the lavish, upswept hairstyles that were popular during this time period. They were quite elaborate, incorporating embellishments such as ostrich feathers, silk bows, flowers, and faux fruit. Some are said to have even included an entire stuffed bird!
Women wearing picture hats in 1911
A New Law for Hatpins
As the hats became larger and more ornate, the hatpins became longer and more decorative as well. It was not uncommon for the hatpins to be made of fine metals and jewels and as long as 13 inches. This made a perfect self-defense weapon for Victorian women!
In 1908, a judge found them so threatening that he ordered all the suffragettes on trial to remove their hats and hatpins, which was quite an insult, in case they were tempted to use them as weapons in his court.
Arkansas copied an Illinois law and passed a bill in 1909 to limit the length of a lady’s hatpin to nine inches as they were considered deadly weapons. As a result, ladies had to cut their pins shorter if they wanted to wear them in public. If a longer hatpin was needed, they were required to get a permit for it. Ordinances were also passed requiring the tips of hatpins to be covered to keep from accidentally injuring people.
Falling out of Fashion
During the 1920s, hatpins became unnecessary as hairstyles were shorter and hats were smaller. If used at all, they were simply for decoration.
Popular cloche hat as worn by silent film star Vilma Banky, 1927
Hats in a much wider variety of styles were back in fashion in the 1930s. World War II started in 1939 and women took over the jobs men had before they went off to war working in aircraft plants, factories, and shipyards. Hats were generally practical, often knitted by hand and worn to keep warm.
If a hat was needed immediately, women tied headscarves into an instant hat. The wearing of elaborate, decorative hats quickly fell out of fashion and the need for hatpins was no more.
Today, hatpins are very collectible and prized, especially when found with precious metals and jewels or in good condition after so many years. There is an American Hatpin Society for collectors in the U.S. and The Hat Pin Society of Great Britain for collectors in the UK.
It would have been quite an experience to live during the heyday of the hatpin. I can just imagine wearing my big, fancy picture hat with lots of sparkling, jeweled hatpins. Now, being well-behaved is another matter.
Kimberly Moore is a vintage costume jewelry expert, blogger, speaker, and author of Beauty in a Life Repurposed. To learn more, visit her website at kingdomsparkle.com.
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