The first clothing fasteners with the principle of a pin (metal) retained by a bow (generally organic) appeared in central Europe during the Middle Bronze Age in the second millennium b.c.e. From these a variant developed in the thirteenth or twelfth century b.c.e. that archaeologists have identified as the direct ancestor of the modern safety pin. It was a single piece of bronze wire coiled at one end as a spring, with a point that engaged a guard of sheet bronze. With many variants it spread rapidly around the Mediterranean, especially in Greek lands. For male and female wearers it is thought to have been a badge of both worldly and spiritual privilege. Around 500 b.c.e., new trends in clothing construction (especially the toga) ended its prestige in the Mediterranean, though it flourished north of the Alps until the third century c.e., when provincials were granted Roman citizenship with its right to the toga. In the Middle Ages, in the West, the luxury fibula resumed its role as an upper-class ornament.
The nineteenth-century safety pin may have been a conscious classical revival, influenced by increasing museum display of and publication of articles on ancient fibulae. The first U.S. patent for a coiled-wire pin of this type granted to Walter Hunt in 1849 is significantly entitled "Dress-Pin," even though other patents had been issued for "safety pins." The inventor claimed durability, beauty, convenience, and injury protection, in that order. Only beginning in the late 1870s did other inventors add the guard that protected the wearer fully. Crucially, they also developed machinery for automating the production of the pins. By 1914, American factories alone were making over 1.33 billion safety pins annually at a cost of $0.007 each, a stunning example of the industrial order's democratization of an ancient and medieval luxury product. The maverick economist Thorstein Veblen affixed his watch to his clothing with a safety pin to show his indifference to conspicuous consumption—a gesture of reverse snobbery later followed more drastically by the punk movement's use of safety pins as piercing jewelry from the 1970s onward.
The spread of disposable diapers with snap fasteners after World War II reduced the role of safety pins in the household, or rather redefined safety as protection from embarrassment by malfunctioning apparel. On the negative side, the fasteners' reassuring name conceals their real hazards to unsupervised children, who swallow them all too often. Extracting open safety pins requires special instruments first developed over one hundred years ago, and exceptional medical skill.
See alsoBrooches and Pins; Fasteners; Pins .
Alexander, J. A. "The History of the Fibula." In The Explanation of Culture Change: Models in Prehistory. Edited by Colin Renfrew. Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1973.
Kaghan, Theodore. "Humanity's Hall of Fame: They Gave Us the Safety Pin." Los Angeles Times, 1 January 1939, H12.
Hunt, Walter. 1849. Dress Pin. U.S. Patent 6,281. Available from <http://www.uspto.gov>.