Friday, May 06, 2011

A modest proposal

I'll give to you a paper of pins
And that's the way our love begins
If you will marry me, me, me
If you will marry me.
I was a junior in college when the Four Lads sang their version of the traditional folksong Paper of Pins, head-over-heels in love with a pretty Saint Mary's girl, and thinking vaguely that I might like to marry her someday. "Someday" happened soon enough, even without a paper of pins from me. My young bride brought her own paper of pins into our marriage, along with a portable sewing machine she got for her seventeenth birthday. In the long years since, she's gone through several papers of pins.

A paper of pins. I wonder if my grandchildren even know what that is? Do they still sell papers of pins? I took a quick look at four or five sewing supply sites on the internet. Lots of plastic boxes of pins with spherical plastic tops and old fashioned flat-head pins in plastic boxes. But no papers of pins that I could find. I trust you can still get them somewhere. Papers of pins have been a staple of civilization since the Industrial Revolution, and certainly since Adam Smith wrote Wealth of Nations, which famously begins with papers of pins:
To take an example, therefore, from a very trifling manufacture; but one in which the division of labour has been very often taken notice of, the trade of the pin-maker; a workman not educated to this business (which the division of labour has rendered a distinct trade), nor acquainted with the use of the machinery employed in it (to the invention of which the same division of labour has probably given occasion), could scarce, perhaps, with his utmost industry, make one pin in a day, and certainly could not make twenty. But in the way in which this business is now carried on, not only the whole work is a peculiar trade, but it is divided into a number of branches, of which the greater part are likewise peculiar trades. One man draws out the wire, another straights it, a third cuts it, a fourth points it, a fifth grinds it at the top for receiving the head; to make the head requires two or three distinct operations; to put it on, is a peculiar business, to whiten the pins is another; it is even a trade by itself to put them into the paper; and the important business of making a pin is, in this manner, divided into about eighteen distinct operations, which, in some manufactories, are all performed by distinct hands, though in others the same man will sometimes perform two or three of them. I have seen a small manufactory of this kind where ten men only were employed, and where some of them consequently performed two or three distinct operations. But though they were very poor, and therefore but indifferently accommodated with the necessary machinery, they could, when they exerted themselves, make among them about twelve pounds of pins in a day. There are in a pound upwards of four thousand pins of a middling size. Those ten persons, therefore, could make among them upwards of forty-eight thousand pins in a day. Each person, therefore, making a tenth part of forty-eight thousand pins, might be considered as making four thousand eight hundred pins in a day. But if they had all wrought separately and independently, and without any of them having been educated to this peculiar business, they certainly could not each of them have made twenty, perhaps not one pin in a day; that is, certainly, not the two hundred and fortieth, perhaps not the four thousand eight hundredth part of what they are at present capable of performing, in consequence of a proper division and combination of their different operations.
And so the humble common pin, which is one of the oldest artifacts of homo sapiens, having its origin perhaps in a thorn or fishbone, becomes an exemplar for the division of labor, and a way of organizing life in which laborers and artifacts become interchangeable parts.

But more was to come. In the 1830s, John Ireland Howe invented a pin-making machine, and his company was soon turning out 70,000 pins a day. Someone still had to crimp the paper packaging and insert the pins by hand. By 1843 Howe had figured out how to do even that mechanically. The rest, as they say, is history. Agrarian life and cottage industry vanished in a whirr of spinning cogs and pulleys, and a paper of pins became cheap enough and useful enough to become a hopeful lover's token of endearment.