Behold the humble safety pin. Beautiful, don’t you think?
The very first pins used for clothing date back to Mycenaean Greece in the 14th century BC and were called “fibulae”. They were used later by the Romans to fasten things like cloaks and dresses.
It took thousands of years for someone to simplify and streamline the construction of a fastening pin.
American mechanical engineer Walter Hunt is regarded as the inventor of the modern safety pin. The safety pin included a clasp that covered the point and kept it from opening, and a circular twist at the bend to act as a spring and hold it in place. Hunt used a piece of brass wire that was about 200 mm long and made a coil in the center of the wire so it would open up when released. The clasp at one end was devised in order to shield the sharp edge from the user. Simple and ingenious.
Hunt was motivated by the desire to pay off a $15 debt to a friend. After being issued US Patent #6281 on 10 April 10 1849 he sold the patent to W. R. Grace and Company for $400 (roughly $14,000 in 2023 dollars). Using that money, Hunt then paid the $15 owed to a friend and kept the remaining $385 for himself. In the years to follow, W.R. Grace and Company would make millions of dollars in profits from his invention
This wasn’t going to be Hunt’s only miscalculation. He was a prolific inventor who also invented a sewing machine that he initially decided not to patent or commercialise as he was concerned about mill workers losing their jobs.
Safety pins are now commonplace as functional devices, but they have also taken on some cultural meaning.
During the emergence of punk rock in the late 1970s, safety pins became associated with the genre, its followers and fashion.
And more recently, safety pins worn visibly on clothing became a symbol of solidarity with victims of racist and xenophobic speech and violence after the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom in 2016. Later that year the symbol spread to the US after Donald Trump's election to the presidency.
Some commentators and activists derided the wearing of safety pins as "slacktivism", while others argued it was useful when connected with other, more concrete political actions.
1. Safety Pin
2. Fibulae types from Riha, E. Die römischen Fibeln aus Augst und Kaiseraugst (1979)
3. Walter Hunt
4. Walter Hunt Patent for the Safety Pin, 1849
5. Safety Pin Model Representation, 1849
6. Johnny Rotten photographed in 1976.Ray Stevenson/REX/Shutterstock
7. Photograph by Maen Zayyad / Alamy