Those Wonderful Gizmos Which Hold Us Together

I steal the title from my uncle who watched my aunt fiddle and fuss for 15 minutes deciding whether to use button loops, snaps or hooks and eyes on her dress. In exasperation he finally exclaimed “Why do women need so d— many gizmos to hold them together!” To a five year old the sound of gizmo was a magical utterance, a password to anywhere the imagination would go or want to be. It has been my favorite catch-all word ever since.

So where and when did all those gizmos originate? Snaps, hooks and eyes, zippers, straight pins, safety pins, utility pins, fancy pins and, of course, needles which are essential for fastening the fasteners — they were around when we were born, commonplace like white bread and vanilla ice cream. We don’t give much thought to the fact that at one time they didn’t exist so hoorays must be given to the genial gents and ladies of perception who invented some very important and essential items which certainly give new meaning to closure.

You won’t learn a lot of history here; the facts are skimpy. This is merely an attempt to arouse your curiosity to do some deep fact hunting…and then share your knowledge with us.

An assortment of sewing supplies dating between early 1900s-1930s. Crocheted covers like pink one shown here were stuffed with powder puffs to use as pincushions and popular in the 1920s-30s. Cushion contiains a 1940s toilet pin and 1/2″ brass safety pin cWWI. Blue wool felt girl when opened up reveals cloth needleholder. Art noveau steel measuring gauge, celluloid point turner/ruler and gold-plated stork embroidery scissors are turn of the century.


The Gizmos
Needles In warm climates a lightly woven covering sufficed for cave dwellers. But those who lived in colder regions needed some form of sewing to make their coverings protective. First came thorns and bone awls to hold clothes together. Once holes were placed in these devices, twisted yarn could be held, thus making a needle. These were probably the earliest of primitive fasteners. Early stone age people were found to be intrepid weavers and with the development of the needle, clothes decoration became another practiced skill. By 3000 BC Sumerians used pierced fish spines to receive thread.

Bone awl      
– Textiles, 1926

Bone Awl

As with any developing technology, needles were made of various improved substances with English steel proving to be superior. But even those early needles were prone to breaking, bending and rusting. Brass tin plated became the popular choice to overcome those deficiencies. Better needles had a gold-rimmed eye. The only time needles were not advertised as rustproof was during WWII when they were made of cheap metal to conserve on war-time materials. This also applied to other metal notions such as snaps, straight and safety pins and hooks and eyes.

The number of firms making needles is a study in itself, a maze of names like the bias tape chart from a previous column. All advertised themselves in the same manner as Beissel’s Prize Medal Needles in the 1894 Ladies Home Journal – “The finest on the globe, will not bend, break or cut thread ad are the cheapest. If once tried no other make will be tolerated.” Needles were available in many types of packaging from cloth and paper packets to tiny wooden holders. In 1895 Eclipse offered a handy package comprised of needle packets, hooks & eyes and long straight pins. One popular form of container was the needlebook, now a hot and trendy collectors item.

Connie McGinnis of Rosie’s Needlebook Museum says these books appeared as advertising premiums from the early 1900s through the 1950s. They are literally a booklet, about postcard size with advertising on the front and back covers and lined with foil or cloth to hold various sizes of needles and usually a needlethreader. Sometimes the needles were in packets attached to the lining. Most needlebooks were give-aways.

Bull dog   Merricks

Two very nostalgic needlebooks featured in Rosie’s Needlebook Museum – Courtesy Connie McGinnis And of course, enterprising entrepreneurs heightened the sale of needles by devising must-have accessories such as ornate needlethreaders, decorative storage containers from felt silhouettes to enameled holders, pin cushions of every description filled with hair or dried spanish moss or wool clippings, fancy emery cushions for polishing and warding off rust and thimbles which need a tome of their own.

Vintage needlethreaders — the larger one contains instructions for use with both hand and sewing machine needles.

Old needle threaders

Well, needles throughout history were part of woman’s heritage which she prized and treasured as much as her chinaware and domestic skills and so the fair damsels were vulnerable to many a merchant’s glibness – such as the combination needlethreader/pincushion introduced in 1906. On a modern note, needles have long been made for every imaginable purpose so it is interesting to observe how sewing machine needles are rivaling and overtaking the diversity of hand-sewing needles. And on a more significant note, needles gave birth to straight and safety pins.

Straight Pins These indispensables were fashioned of iron and bone by Sumerians around 3000 BC. They were an extension of the early needle minus the hole. By the sixth century wealthy Grecians used elaborately jeweled stick pins or stilettos to hold their garments together. With a slight adaptation to add tension, a primitive safety pin was born.

The true straight appeared sometime between 1790 to 1815. They were called two-part pins because that’s exactly what they were, a thin sliver of pointed metal which fit into a cap or head to hold it in place. In 1833 the one-piece head and shaft was invented and became commonplace by 1837. The early pins were crude and like needles, rusted and easily broke.

By the late 1800s most pins were made of brass, refined, made in universal standard sizes and advertised as rustproof. There were numerous manufacturers on either side of the Atlantic, notably — G.L.Turney, England, which in the 1880s offered improved needle-pointed pins in mixed size points and lengths; Wallace & Sons sold brass pins under the Eagle label in the early 1900s.

There have been many names for straight pins – necessary pins c1860s-early 1900s, dressmaker pins and within that silks and standards c 1920s to current, toilet pins characterized by black glass heads c1940s and as the photos show, special decorative pins to be seen and admired on clothing.

Collector Melissa Roberts points out that these fancy fasteners were known by various names which indicated their purpose: baby, bib, cuff, waist, lace, collar, lingerie and beauty. They were popular from about 1890 to 1920. They were made of gold, silver and other metals and sometimes ornamented with pearls, glass, semi-precious stones or enameling. When chosen for babies, they could be engraved with the child’s name or an affectionate nickname such as Darling. Pins were often sold in sets so that they could fasten the opening of a lady’s waist or the back of an infant’s gown. These pins appear to be a throwback of the 6th century Grecian pins.

Bab Pin     Baby Pins

Decorative pins: note prices of these fetching pins from Sears 1897 catalog and to the right, what a mouth-watering assortment.

– Courtesy Melissa Roberts, Hollis & Bell Again as with needles, straight pins came in diverse packaging.

Pin safes, pin cubes, flannel rollups with silk ribbon ties which were more homemade than commercial, enameled paper sheets, cardboard boxes and plastic boxes. Once paper sheets and boxes became the staple pin containers, there was little if no change in merchandising. Witness that in both the 1937 and 1946 editions of Fabrics and Dress by Rathbone and Tarpley there is literally no change in the wording for description of pins: “Ordinary pins are obtainable in papers.

  • The better qualities of pins are usually sold by the box in ¼ lb. sizes.
  • Box pin sizes are classified as bankers, large and coarse; dressmakers, medium; silk, finest with sharp points.
  • Pins are made of steel or brass with a tin coating.
  • Rust is less probable when the latter is used.

In selecting pins for dressmaking, choose smooth, sharp-pointed ones.” And again as with needles, straight pins required several accessories – the pin cushion and the pin tray, two current hot collectibles. Pin trays probably phased out during the 1950s. They were made from china, porcelain, celluloid and plastic, many wonderfully decorated and shaped. There were various sizes to accommodate pins of all types – hat, toilet, straight and decorative.

Pin Cubehs holdsheet

Examples of pin packaging — 1904 Household pin set contains assortment of 80 necessary pins for a variety of sewing needs. Pin cube from Germany dates to 880s and retains most of its original pins.

Pin safe Pin Tray

Vintage pin holders — leather pin safe and Limoges china pin tray. Today the traditional straight pin is coming in second to the large white-headed pin for general sewing and the super-fine, extra-long Swiss iris straight pin for silks, sheers, pimas and most mircrofibers. Safety Pin The safety pin dates back to 1000 BC in Central Europe and was the first significant improvement over the straight pin.

  • It had no protective sheath.
  • It was a bent U-shaped device with the point cradled away somewhat exposed in a curved wire.

In sixth century BC Greek and Roman women fastened their robes on the shoulder and upper arm with a fibula. This was an innovative pin in which the middle was coiled, producing tension and a spring-like opening action. It was a step closer to the modern safety pin.

Straight to safety pin

Garment pins from straight to safety — Top: straight pins from the Bronze Age; Center: three Roman bronze safety pins 500 BC; Bottom: modern-style pins showing both the Danish open sheath and the contemporary wide closed  sheath.

– Extaordinary Origins of Everyday Things, 1987 Aside from belts, fastening pins, as they were called, remained the predominant way to fasten garments well into the 14th century. And as clothing became more sophisticated the more pins were needed. Palace records of 1347 show 12,000 pins were needed for the wardrobe of a French princess! Ever hear the expressions pin money? pocket money? As pins were homemade, there was often a scarcity and this drove up prices.

Many a feudal lord created or increased his serf’s taxes so he could afford money to pay for pins. To stem the hoarding and overindulgence of pins, a law was passed in Britain in the late Middle Ages to allow pinmakers to sell only on certain days of the year. This enabled the upper and lower-classes to save and have enough pin money at market time. Once pins began to be mass produced by machine, prices plummeted and pin money was devalued to mean a wife’s pocket money. Buttons started to be used gradually on the aristocracy’s clothes in the late 1200s and by the 16th century all but replaced pins.

  • In the late 1870s the Danish safety pin was developed.
  • It was the modern type with wide protective sheath.
  • In the late 1890s Judson Pin Co. advertised Capsheaf, a coilless safety pin which “cannot catch in the fabric” and was “highly endorsed by trained nurses.” In 1898 an advertisement for Stewart’s duplex safety pins in The Ladies Home Journal noted “guarded spring prevents all catching or tearing of material…guard is on inside of spring….the only effective guard to prevent catching or tearing.

It is on the arm of pin that passes through the cloth…patented and cannot be used on any other pin….pin works in dark and light, fastens from either side but cannot slip through; made in nickel plate and jet black in assorted sizes.”Safety pins were made in various metals from bronze to steel to brass and in many lengths from kilt size down to ½”. This smallest size was popular on children’s and doll garments in the early 1900s to 1930s. While safety pins will more than likely always have a future, they have been eclipsed by buttons, zippers and Velcro.

Caps Heath Pin

Capsheaf safety pin ad – McCalls Magazine, November 1904

New sears ad pins

It’s not clear if the sensible safety pin in Sears 1908 catalog is brand name or adjective. Notice the improved sheath on the c1950s Clinton pins.

– Courtesy Shirley McElderry Zippers Even a policeman can get stuck in trafficThis was a clever Talon ad slogan about 50 decades ago.

It comically and tersely sums up the importance of having a quality product. In 1893 Whitcomb Judson of Chicago, so the story goes, was inspired by a bird feather to make shoe fasteners for a friend with a bad back who couldn’t bend over to button his shoes.Judson noticed how easy it was to pull apart the many feather strands that hook together and to make the feather whole again by pinching his fingers along the separation. And so he invented two rows of teeth that hooked together when a slide was moved. He and a partner formed Universal Fastener and Judson was granted a patent for the first zipper called a clasp locker or unlocker for shoes.

There was a problem; the hook-and-eye fastener would come open quite unexpectedly and so never caught on. Twenty years later in 1913 Gideon Sundback, an engineer, produced a smaller and lighter device – a fastener with teeth on two tapes which was to become the modern zipper. It was first used for military clothing and equipment and then for home use on tobacco pouches, money belts and boots.

Around 1920 zippers began appearing on clothing. Again they were not popular; made of metal they rusted. This meant removing a zipper each time a garment was washed. Plus for some reason, the public had difficulty operating a zipper so instruction booklets on use and maintenance came with each zippered item. At this point we must thank B.F. Goodrich himself. In 1923 he introduced rubber galoshes with the new hookless fasteners. As he closed his boots, he mimicked the sound z-z-z-zip, coining the word zipper. He renamed the boots Zipper Boots, ordered 150,000 zippers from Hookless Fastener located in Meadville, Pa. This company would later be named Talon.

The unusual name zipper plus increased reliability and rustproofing greatly popularized zippers. By the late 1920s, zippers, concealed under a flap were common clothes fasteners or placket fasteners as they were called. It became downright fashionable after designer Elsa Schiaparelli introduced her 1935 spring line dripping in various zippers which were colored, oversized, decorative and nonfunctional.

Judson Zipper

Whitcomb Judson’s clasp locker, an hook-and-eye zipper created to replace shoe laces.
-Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things, 1987

Woman at piano zipper

You just never knew when to expect a parting of the Judson zipper.
– Inventions to Keep Clothes On, 1989

soundback zipper

The Sundback zipper of 1913 has teeth on two tapes and is the prototype of the modern zipper.
– Inventions to Keep Clothes On, 1989


Even though zippers were available by 1916, sewing books and the public preferred the hook-and-eye security of the reliable placket. Notice length of placket.

– Women’s Institute, 1916 Metal zippers were still called slide fasteners well into the 1950s.

Star, Wrights, JP Clark’s Crown, Kwik Brand, Flash & Lightning and Zephyr were some of the larger manufacturers. Lesser known zippers came unwrapped; Zip Brand was stored on reels and cut to size; Talon was packaged in cardboard containers; later Clarks and Wrights used circular plastic boxes. Enamel colored metal teeth appeared during the early 1950s color-keyed to thread and nylon coil in the later part of the decade. New fabrics enabled zippers to be lighter and less bulky.

In the early 1960s Unique produced the invisible zipper, preferred by many sewers today. Nylon coil was replaced by polyester within the past 20 years. As long as hidden openings are needed, zippers will be with us. Ironically, it is compatible with Velcro, the alternative for the young, aged and handicapped. Hooks & Eyes This form of fastener was popular for clothes needing to fit snugly and requiring hidden, sturdy fastenings.

Prior to 1830 hooks and eyes were made of copper and replaced by brass around 1830. In the 1840s wire drawn hooks, became popular, returning to brass in the 1850s. As women’s underclothes were fastened by means of tapes, ties or buttons, hooks were mainly used on outerwear and essential to the proper fit of bodices through the 1880s. The peak of popularity and innovation was during the late 1890s into the early 20s when the fashion in clothes changed dramatically, necessitating a need for various sizes and types of hook closings.

Strong hooks were especially needed for fur and plush capes and skirt and trouser waistbands. Daintier hooks were used on underclothing waistbands and at necklines. A typical ad for hooks would be similar to the one in the Ladies Home Journal, September 1894 for Francis patent hook and eye featuring the latest spring hook with a metal loop and an edge eye: “Don’t make loops of thread…saves sewing, saves time, keeps hooked, prevents gaping”.

The triple strand of wire hooks debuted in the early 1900s. Hooks were made of brass, nickel plated or jet black and rustproof , except during WWII when they fell victim to metal for the duration of the war. Rather than try to describe the numerous brands, styles and types, the photos of hook and eye ads and cards will tell the story.

Nub hooks

There appeared to be no lack of hook and eye companies. These four ads for Nub, West, Peet and Doric appeared in the May 1914 issue of Pictorial Review.

west hook eyePeets hooks Doric hooks

As zippers began appearing on clothing in the late 1920s, hook and eyes were mostly relegated to special areas of dress, mainly the neckline and the waist and sometimes the cuff.

With the disappearance of pantaloons and emergence of bloomers and elasticized panties and petticoats becoming street length slips there was little need for hook fastenings.


Some of the many brand hooks and eyes c1920s. Snap hook in lower right hand corner is from an 1890s plush cape.


More hook and eye brands pre-1920; National is 1907. Ruler is a tailor’s ruler which conveniently folds to fit in work apron. And in lower right-hand corner — how many of you remember the greatest fastener of them all! This life saver halted runs in silk, rayon and early nylon hosiery. Matchstick cases were another form of advertising premiums.

–  Courtesy of Margo Thomas Today hooks are still used where snug fits or hidden closures are required in both couture and ready to wear.

However there has been one major change. Somewhere in the past five or six years, the I bar has been eliminated in packaging; you may have noticed this if you have bought any hooks recently. I do not know the reason; some say loops are all that is necessary for today’s clothes; others like myself feel the I bar is just as essential. Snaps The earliest snap fasteners were of the bird-cage type — a dome slit by longitudinal perforations and a rigid ring as a socket into which the dome was forced. Because of the design, snaps would later be called ball and socket fasteners.

Snaps began showing up around 1840 in Europe. They were used primarily on theatrical costumes, especially where the costume had to be removed quickly between scenes of plays. For example, snaps were sewn on the outside of garments to hold ruffles and then quickly removed to change costume’s appearance. Snaps then began to appear on gloves. During the 1850s the snap was designed as we know it today. A German firm invented a snap fastener with a double S spring made from bronze wire in the late 1800s. The early snaps were not reliable nor rustproof.

By the early 1890s they began to sprout by the hundreds, as many brands as hooks and eyes and more often than not by the same manufacturer.Snaps attempted to compete with hooks – an ad in the January 1898 Ladies World for the Ball and Socket Fastener Co., Makers of Removable Fasteners of All Kinds, states: “Hear it Snap – no hooks, no eyes, no buttons, no bother, sews on invisible, simple, practical….endorsed by dressmakers, fastens easily and stays so, you hear it fasten, the blind can fasten it.”

wireball snap

Ad for Wire & Ball snaps in McCall’s Magazine, November 1904

Prym2 ad

An Annie Oakley rodeo exhibition? This is a German ad for Prym’s snap fasteners which appeared in 1913 in Frauen Moden Zeitung [Women’s Modern Magazine].Translation — Prym’s newest hit…strongest push button….guaranteed reliable….won’t open on its own….a try will convince you.

– Courtesy of Nancy Jones, Germany Adjustable heavy metal snaps called mechanics buttons were popular for men’s work pants in the early 1900s as they still are today although most are now gripper style.

There were several varieties all claiming to be the finest fastener.Snaps were and are still favorites for children’s and doll clothes and for adult clothes as a substitute for hooks and eyes. As with all fasteners, they are brass, nickel plated or jet black and rustproof. Each manufacturer claims either a special spring action or a unique fit. Many have holes in the center for positioning.


Brands of snaps  1916-50s. Snaps in lower right-hand corner are a spring type from 1916.

– Left side courtesy of Margo Thomas

Koorinoor snaps

Tin compartmentalized container holds 12 dozen assorted size Waldes Koh-i-noor dress fasteners c1920s-30s made for Sears.

shirleys snaps

Pilcher’s detachable buttons c1930s feature the combined assets of gripper and button. Clinton carded snap assortment c1950s is as contemporary as today.

– Courtesy of Shirley McElderry Square snaps were used on many commercial doll clothes in the 1940s and 50s and it is the only way to authenticate those clothes, particularly if label is missing or there was no label. It can mean the difference of several dollars or $200 in some cases. Plastic snaps started to appear in the 1960s; nylon in the 1970s. What lies ahead for fasteners? Fashion and lifestyle will determine that outcome. But sewers are a breed unto themselves and don’t easily part with tradition so it is likely fasteners will continue to be available in our lifetime.


  • McCalls Magazine, November 1904
  • Sears Catalog, 1908
  • Elite Styles, October 1913
  • Pictorial Review, May 1914
  • Lippincott’s Clothing for Women, Laura Baldt, 1916
  • Textile, Woolman and McGowan,1926
  • Fabrics and Dress, Rathbone & Tarpley, 1937 and 1946
  • Collectors Book of Doll Clothes, Dorothy, Elizabeth and Evelyn Coleman,1975
  • Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things, Charles Panati, 1987
  • Inventions to Keep Your Clothes On, Vicky Cobb, 1989

Various vintage periodicals from the collection of author Thelma Bernard Next Month: Cambric — Gone with the Wind Coming Soon: Feedbags, What Quilters Want and Building A Textile Reference Library The arbitrary cut-off date for this Vintage Fabric column is 1960. To stay within the scope of this timeframe, reference materials published up to that date are the prime source of information to more accurately capture actual thoughts of the time. Joan Kiplinger is an antique doll costumer and vintage fabric addict who learned to sew on her grandmother’s treadle and has been peddling fabrications ever since.


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