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The Greatest Invention Ever

By LC Van Savage

Back when I was in college, and yes Virginia, they had colleges back then, I had my own radio show. Well, “my own” might be a tiny stretch—it was a course I opted to take called “Radio” because the other choices were calculus, chemistry, or law. I knew I’d pretty much excel at any of those offered curricula, but Radio was offered after 5 PM and even back then I did not believe in mornings, and particularly mornings that involved textbooks. So I signed on because that radio course actually gave credits, and I became a radio personality although I’m not sure anyone ever called me that except me. It was fun. I learned a lot, and I loved (and still love) being on the radio and would almost kill to be able do it again because, and the reasons are obvious, it really doesn’t matter how you look when you’re on the radio. You can be snaggle-toothed, ratty-haired, fetid, and covered with running sores the cause of which can’t be identified, but as long as your voice sounds good, and you can do commercials with some enthusiasm, you’re OK. I so wish I had my own radio show again—I’ve had 3, but luckily never had to learn “the board.” Someone else did that for me. Radio rocks!

But that’s not the point of this column, so just about here I’ll kind of gently segue over to the real subject; safety pins. OK, that was a pretty abrupt segue, but here’s the deal. When I was doing that radio show during my college years, Mr. George, our radio teacher guy, wanted us to interview a large number of people wandering around the campus for Parents’ Weekend about what they thought was the most important invention of the modern world. Some tried to be really brainy, spouting off things like Mr. Einstein’s theory, or maybe trying to be amusing like saying “toilet paper” or “the church key” (ask your grandfather) but one woman (it would of course be a woman) gave the best answer; “the safety pin.” And she was right. The safety pin is probably one of the best inventions ever.

Now be honest; how many of us have been grateful to have found a safety pin when the elastic in our underpants suddenly gave way in the middle of our very first date or as we’re walking toward a lectern? But then this isn’t a column about the badzillions of uses this gizmo has, most of which are in emergency situations; it’s about the history of that small bit of bent, pointed metal. And I’ll bet you’re really interested in the history of the safety pin. Am I right? Well, lucky you, I’m about to provide that.

Nope, sorry, we Americans did not invent the safety pin. It’s thought that the thing was created about 3K+ years ago in Central Europe. It began as a curved wire, probably bronze, with the point exposed which was likely a bit painful when people flew into an embrace, forgetting they were holding their garments together with that sharply pointed bit of wire. Ouch. Something obviously had to be done. Too much blood was letting.

Sumerians had created straight pins made of iron and bone and from their extant writings, they apparently invented the eye in those pins so they could be used for sewing. My second grade teacher, however, taught us that cave people used to thread some sinew, preferably not a family member’s, although maybe, into a sharpened bone with a hole in one end, and with that, stitched skins together, preferably not a family member’s, although maybe. And, some ancient writings on some cave walls somewhere show pierced fish spines for sewing.

Anyway, somewhere around the sixth century BC, Greek people used something pretty close to our safety pins of today. Togas and robes were a bear to keep on, especially on very windy days, so they fastened their robes with belts or ropes around their middles, and on the top of one shoulder with a thing called a “fibula” which until this instant I thought was a bone in the leg or somewhere. Well, the joke’s on me; apparently it’s both. Boy, you sure do learn a lot when you write a column. Anyway, this pin at the shoulders of Greek ladies, was a kind of coiled metal thing which would clasp together with tension and had a spring-open option. Man, you can always count on a smart Greek, right? Lord or Lady Grecian could then stroll with confidence around Athens or wherever Greeks’ favorite stroll areas were, and not be afraid they’d find themselves suddenly dishabille in the middle of something Olympics.

Your Greeks also used straight pins for ornamental jewelry. They could be made of anything valuable; ivory, bronze, and were called “stilettos.” And you thought those were shoes worn by hookers, right? This time the joke’s on you!

Pins were a huge deal way, way back. Always treasured, and in short supply, taxes were levied on the poor (nothing’s changed, right?) so that feudal lords could have money for pins. Pins became so important to people that they were hoarded and therefore became very expensive, so a law was passed that they could only be sold on certain days of the year. Women assiduously saved up their “pin money” so they could buy them on the allowed days. Then the price of pins dropped and “pin money” began to mean a wife’s pocket money, a tiny amount of lucre with which she could only afford to buy pins, because they were now not so important and therefore cheap.

The safety pin with its safety cover at one end began to gain in popularity and in fact became a tidy business for a couple of thousand years but then, uh oh, someone invented buttons, and safety pins as a clothing necessity began to go the way of the buggy whip. OK, maybe not that extreme. We don’t use buggies anymore, but we sure do use pins. I have a treasured collection of old diaper pins I use all the time; to hold my dust ruffle around my mattress, to pin tight my skirt waistbands when I lose weight, (I know what you’re thinking. Be nice.) To pin gloves together. To pin keys together. To pin together the cases on the electric hotpad covers I make that I keep under every chair in my house and in our bed because my feet are blue with cold for 10 months a year. TMI, right?

Just the right size, diaper pin uses are multifold in my home, along with Velcro, fishing line and Duct Tape. But just try to find old diaper pins with plastic shields on their ends anymore. And while you’re at it, try to find the old cloth diapers we used those pins on. Alas, I guess they’ve gone into the buggy whip and ear trumpet museums. But I’m OK. I have squirreled away many precious diaper pins and no one will ever find them. I’ll never share them either, so don’t ask.

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