Dear Helaine and Joe: I am attaching pictures of what I have been told are hatpins. They belonged to my wife’s great-grandmother. I would appreciate any information you are able to provide.
Thank you in advance.
— J. H. W.
Dear J. H. W.: There is a debate in this country about gun control, but a little more than a century ago, there was a debate in certain American communities about the ubiquitous hatpin being a dangerous weapon that needed to be banned. Women of the day used the pointy devices to keep their elaborate millinery creations from being dislodged, either in a bustling crowd or in a high wind.
But this was also the age of the “masher,” or spiffily dressed man who tried to force his “attentions” on unwilling women who were unknown to them. The term originated in the 1875-1885 period. The response to the advances of a masher was either to hit him with a purse or umbrella, or stick a wickedly long hatpin into him as far as it could go.
Hatpins were also used to scratch the face, and the use of the devices was sometimes characterized as the “hatpin peril.” A 1904 edition of the San Francisco Call and Post featured illustrations showing how a woman might defend herself from the unwanted attentions of an unsavory man.
The era of the hatpin was roughly between 1875 and about 1920, when women’s hairstyles became too short to use the devices. Hats of the period could be large and rather elaborate, embellished with everything from stuffed birds to entire flower gardens with ribbons and buckles thrown in for good measure.
Sometime a chapeau required as many as six hatpins to keep it anchored to her head, but one or two were more usual. Hatpins came in a variety of sizes with the pin being anywhere from 6 to 12 inches long. Shorter pins (usually with far less elaborate heads) were used for corsages, stick pins and lapel pins and should not be confused with actual hatpins.
Hatpins can be found in the shape of golf clubs, bulldogs, flags, shields, buttons, Art Nouveau women, flowers, lions, birds, insects (bees, ladybugs and spiders), cameos and a myriad of other shapes and varieties.
We would have liked to have seen the hatpins in today’s question in person because we vacillated about the material from which they were made. Was it stone? Was it painted wood? And then, after looking at thousands of hatpins, we decided they were probably made from celluloid, which is an early plastic that can trace its roots to the 1850s.
Celluloid is really nitrocellulose, and it acquired the name “celluloid” in 1870. It is also known as “ivorene,” “synthetic ivory” and “French ivory.” Some hatpins had gold or sterling silver heads and real gems — even diamonds — in their design, but hatpins meant for everyday use by women of modest means were more likely to have heads made from brass, glass or molded celluloid. The two hatpins belonging to J. H. W are interesting, and they are early 20th century, but monetarily they are only worth $25 to $40 at retail for the pair.