The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

A Pin’s Worth: Pins in Books

The object you see tucked in the gathering of the book in this month’s Crocodile Mystery is a pin.

Recently, I have become aware of the presence of pins in a number of books at the Folger Shakespeare Library. At one time, curators and conservators removed them from the books and placed them in curatorial files. Now, we leave pins where we find them if they do not risk harming the book or the reader. A note in the cataloging record alerts readers to their presence.

This discovery led me to do a bit of research on pins and what they might be doing in our books. 1 During most of the early modern period, they were comprised of two pieces, the shank and its head, both made of metal wire, mostly brass or copper. Molten lead or tin was used to join the head to the shank.

A pin removed from Folger book F1058
A pin removed from Folger book F1058

Their length varied depending on their use.

Nine pins of varying lengths.
Nine pins of varying lengths.

It was not until the late 1700s to early 1800s that pins were made as one single piece. Prior to this time, there was always the risk that their head would fall off its shank.

During the sixteenth and most of the seventeenth century, pins were imported to England from the Continent, mostly from France and the Low Countries. Only at the end of the 1600s did English industry start supplying enough for the country’s needs. Gloucester then became the center of pin making.

Every household owned pins. Their number, however, varied greatly depending on the wealth of the family. These small functional objects remained expensive to produce throughout the early modern period due to the cost of the metal they used. Their manufacture also required many different steps, which were used by Adam Smith in his Wealth of Nations to illustrate how production increases with the division of labor. 2

The use of pins to fasten clothes is well known but it is clear that people used them in a variety of ways including in books. Their use as bookmarks or page markers has been noted. 3

Perhaps less well known is the use of pins in books to fix structural problems. For example, the pin in the crocodile picture was intentionally placed in the gutter of the binding to prevent it getting looser.

A pin, inserted into the binding, to keep it from loosening further.

Likewise, the pin in the picture below was placed close to a broken sewing thread. It was removed and placed in a curatorial file but you can see traces of the rubbing that the brass head left on both sides of the book opening.

Traces of a brass pin can be seen in the gutter.
Traces of a brass pin can be seen in the gutter.

Owners of loose pamphlets used pins to keep their leaves together similarly to the way pins were used to attach disparate pieces of papers.

A pin holding loose pages together, much as we might use a paper clip today.
A pin holding loose pages together, much as we might use a paper clip today.

In the book photographed below a pin was used to attach a volvelle, which was detached from its centerpiece.


Moving parts sometimes require assistance!
Moving parts sometimes require assistance!


Close-up of the pin at the center of the volvelle.
Close-up of the pin at the center of the volvelle.

So why were pins used in each of these situations? The most important reason was that these various fixes using pins were quick and cheaper than taking your book or pamphlet to the binder. It was not that different from mending your clothes and obviously, they were fixes that worked, considering the number of pins that one still finds in books today. It should also be noted that although women were the largest consumers of pins, men used them too. One, therefore, should not infer the gender of the book’s owner from the presence of pins in it.

What seems clear, though, is that pins were a sign of heavy use. They were used in “how to” books, prayer books, and textbooks that one consulted regularly, which explains the deterioration of their bindings. Owners fixed their books with pins to be able to keep using them. This must also apply to one of Folger’s copies of the Book of Martyrs, in which nine pins were found. 4

More ways of using pins in books may still be found so keep your eyes open for pins, or traces of them, in books.

  1. Mary Beaudry, Findings: the Material Culture of Needlework and Sewing. New Haven: Yale University Press, c2006.
  2. Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. London: : Printed for W. Strahan; and T. Cadell, in the Strand., 1776.
  3. See, for example, this article on Jane Austen’s use of pins in her editing process.
  4. John Foxe, The First Volume of the Ecclesiasticall History, Contayning the Actes [and] Monumentes of Thinges … London: John Day, 1576, second edition, STC 11224. Unfortunately, these pins were removed in 1946 and it has not been possible to identify to which of the two Folger copies of this book, they belonged.


  • Great post! Pins and books have a long history that is yet to be written, from using pins and a Bible to tell the future to playing games in reading instruction (or pointing to the passage to be read aloud as in the Chardin painting) Leaving them where they are is a good idea.

    • Thank you, Andrea, for pointing to other uses of pins in books (I had never noticed the pin in Chardin’s painting before).

  • Fantastic post. Are we able to reliably date some of these pins? I’ve often wondered how old a pin holding a volvelle down or otherwise stuck in a book is. You mention that the detatchable head may indicate pre-19th century. Are there other ways to tell what era a pin might be from?

    • Thank you for your comment Laura. Mary Beaudry indicates that it is difficult to date pins precisely as they were made the same way throughout the early modern period. I suppose that testing their metal composition could help with a more precise dating. Meanwhile the best indication of a pin’s date is whether or not it is composed of one or two pieces.

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