While the specific origin of the pincushion is slightly fuzzy, there are records of the use of pin cases dating back to Europe in the Middle Ages. Metal was expensive, so pins used for various domestic responsibilities were carefully stored in these cases.
As time went on, their storage containers evolved to become open-faced “pyn-pillows,” or elaborately decorated fabric padding. Other preliminary names for the tool were “pimpilowes,” “pimpilos,” “pimplos,” “pimploes,” or “pin-poppets.”
By the 1700s, people began to mount the pillows on porcelain, silver, china or wooden bases. The cushions could also be weighted and attached to tables. Seamstresses in particular preferred weighted pincushions to hold down the hems of dresses.
However, outside of the professional realm, the pincushion was more of a fashionable home décor item than a practical sewing tool. Women would receive small pincushions as gifts that were specifically embroidered for special occasions or milestones in their lives, such as a pregnancy or marriage.
A popular pincushion design during the Victorian Era was a tomato with a strawberry fastened to the top. Tomatoes were a symbol of prosperity and also said to ward off evil. Many families placed them on their mantels for good luck, but if they were out of season, people would improvise and create their own out of red fabric stuffed with cotton, sand, sawdust or wool.
These makeshift good-luck charms also served the practical purpose of holding pins, but it was not until the 1900s that the pincushion became more widely used for sewing. The attached strawberry was even filled with emery powder to clean and sharpen the pins when needed.
From the late 18th century until the end of World War II, porcelain doll pincushions (otherwise known as “half dolls”) were very popular. Their design included the top half of a beautiful woman cut off at the waist. Holes were on either side of her waist in order to stitch a pincushion to the bottom to resemble a skirt.
Ornate and whimsical shapes are still common, despite the decline in the pincushion’s popularity. The designs can range from animals to food to flowers.
Come visit us at Nature’s Art Village off of Route 85 in Montville, Connecticut to explore our collection of pincushions and other antique treasures! They are available for purchase at The Past Antique Marketplace.