The History of the Straight Pin

44fx0704_1271-0006metcpnbrapid_edited1by Colleen Boyle CART Archaeological Technician

The straight pin has been seen universally for centuries, and although its function has remained relatively the same, the process in which they are made has progressed and streamlined. The straight pin is known mainly for its role in sewing as a small, thin piece of metal used to temporarily hold two pieces of fabric together. The pin has been made out of many different materials like metal, bone, and even wood [1].

In Ancient Rome, pins were elaborately handmade and often worn in the hair or to hold two pieces of clothing together. During the renaissance in Europe pins were often made from iron, brass, or copper wire and the remnants of their manufacture have been found on many sixteenth and seventeenth century archaeological sites in London and parts of France [2] Wire pins produced in both America and Europe in the nineteenth century can be found on archaeological sites across the East Coast. They can be indicators of a domestic or residential area. Handmade straight pins can suggest an early time period for a site in North America.

The process of hand making metal straight pins is a complicated one, often with up to 18 separate steps to produce the small pin [3]. Each pin would have been handmade individually and involved the use of tools such as the “pin maker’s peg” or the “Pinner’s bone” to help achieve the pointed end of the pin. This tool was made from a small thin animal bone with groves carved into it to prevent the pin from losing its straight shape as the end was being sharpened into a point. These tools are usually identifiable today by the green color from the copper wire residue as well as the diagonal file marks left in the bone by the sharpening process of the pins.

The head of the pin was made from another piece of wire of a similar diameter to the rest of the pin. It would then be coiled around the body of the pin and moved into place, referred to as a wound head.  This often produced inconsistent sizes and shapes for the heads and left them sharp enough to catch on the clothing of whomever used it. This inconvenience led to the practice of stamping the head of the pin into a flat or ball shape from the same piece of wire from the body of the pin and ended the practice of coiling a second wire.


Before the seventeenth century this process was expensive and meant that metal straight pins were privy to the wealthy as it was not a viable industry until a later time. By the mid-1700s pin making was one of the most important industries in Gloucester, England. Wire straight pins were a common export of these factories, especially to the English colonies due to high demand. There were attempts to produce straight pins in the colonies through small mills up and down the east coast after the American Revolution. Because most mills were still producing each pin by hand no operation was truly successful until the mid-1800s and a full-fledged factory was not created until 1836. Before the introduction of the mass produced wire pin, factories were still producing each pin by hand and were only able to produce around 5,000 straight pins a day.

Many inventors during this time began to design and patent machines to mass manufacture pins, one example being the Howe Manufacturing Company of Derby, Connecticut formed by John Ireland Howe in 1836. Howe’s factory was able to produce upwards of 70,000 straight pins each day by producing each pin from a single piece of wire that would have the head stamped flat rather than using the coiling process. This made the purchase and use of these straight pins even more common and affordable than in prior years [4]. The presence of these pins in archaeological sites can suggest a domestic area. Straight pins are not gender specific items as they were used by both men and women in clothing, hats, and even wigs when needed. Their presence can always suggest their proximity to a domestic location as this was where they were often used and stored, or thrown out when broken or bent [5].

The straight pins found by our archaeologists and volunteers were recovered from Colchester Park through the process of water screening. This allows very small artifacts to be recovered that would have otherwise gone undocumented and can give a more complete picture of the activities that took place in this historic site.

[1] Beaudry, Mary C. Findings, The Material Culture of Sewing. Pg 11-12. (2006) Yale University Press.

[2] Beaudry, Mary C. Findings, The Material Culture of Sewing. Pg 16-17 (2006) Yale University Press.

[3] Kephart, Kelsey. Little Bay Archaeology Project, Monserrat, West Indies. A history of Straight pins found in the manor house of the Carr plantation (2012).

[4] How Products are made, Straight Pin. 2016.

[5] Beaudry, Mary C. Findings, The Material Culture of Sewing. (2006) Yale University Press.

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Biweekly Update – 22 October


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Savannah River Projectile Point


by Elizabeth PaynterCART Lab Director

The picture above shows a broken quartzite Savannah River projectile point that is missing its tip. The Savannah River projectile point is a notable and common point type found along much of the east coast. A sample taken of Savannah Rivers from the lower Patuxent drainage reported that 65% of the points sampled were made of quartzite.[1]  The point is large and broad yet relatively thin. While it is difficult to see from the above image, the blade has a triangular shape often with rounded sides. The shoulders can have a right angle, but are sometimes less pronounced and, instead, well rounded. Looking at the base, the stem is typically broad and square with straight sides.

These points are made almost entirely with a technique called percussion flaking. Percussion refers to the method of removal of the excess stone through impact. A common method of percussion flaking involves holding the stone material that is to become the tool in one hand while another object which is used to remove pieces of the stone to shape the point in the other. See Understanding the Basics of Lithic Production.

The point size can range from 43 to 170 mm in length, 22 to 70 mm and a thickness of 7 to 12 mm. With its wide and thing blade, it is easy to imagine that the Savannah River projectile point may have been used as a fishing spearhead.

The point was produced from approximately 3650 BCE to 1200 BCE. The Savannah River projectile point is unique in its style. No point like it was produced before or after its tight timeframe in the Late Archaic.savannahrivertimeline


From our blog post on Piscataway Points


See our blog post on Piscataway Points for information on the anatomy of a projectile point.

[1] MAC Lab. 2012. Diagnostic Artifacts in Maryland. Maryland Archaeological Conservation Lab (MAAC Lab). Originally Published 2002. Electronic. accessed October 13, 2016

[2] Justice, Noel D. 1987. Stone Age Spear and Arrow Points of the Midcontinental and Eastern United States, A Modern Survey and Reference. Indiana University Press, Bloomington & Indianapolis, Indiana

[3] VDHR Collections. Native American Comparative Collections. Virginia Department of Historic Resources. Electronic. accessed October 13, 2016

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Biweekly Update – 7 October 2016


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Evolution of Gunflint

Gunflint found on one of our recent CART excavations.

Gunflint found on one of our CART excavations.

by Jonathan BrisendineCART Archaeological Technician

While term “Flint Knapping” in American archeology most often references the process by which American Indians made stone tools, the term can also apply to historical archaeology. Here it will be discussed in its use with firearms. The introduction of the flintlock firing mechanism represented a major leap in firearms technology and gunflints, or the debris from their creation, are often found on sites dating to the Colonial and Early National periods.

Throughout time mankind has always sought to push the boundaries of progress, by inventing new technologies that make any given task easier and more efficient. This is seen radically in the implements of warfare. Man is always seeking to gain the edge over their enemies in this field. First it was the bow, which gave a person a huge advantage over the previously used spears and the Atlatl. With the invention of the bow, combat switched from almost entirely hand to hand combat increasingly to a combat at distance.

This trend in distancing the combatants in war accelerated with the introduction of the firearm. Not only do firearms allow one to attack from a distance but they reduce the amount of skill required of the combatant.  For instance in order to fire a good bow, one first had to possess the knowledge of tree species in order to select appropriate materials for the bow and arrow shaft.  Additionally, knowledge of knapping and hafting were required as was the proper technique to place the flights.  Finally, to ensure the projectile had sufficient power required a lot of strength to draw the string. A gun, however, requires the ability to load the weapon and pull a trigger. Here I will only be discussing the technological advances in firing mechanisms and not other implementations such as rifling in the barrel and encased ammo.

The first rendition in firing mechanisms required the user to lower a burning wick or match with one had into a pan of gunpowder that would then set off the charge in the barrel. This not only affected the aim but required the user to use an overly large kickstand to hold the riffle steady with one hand while the other lit the powder as seen below.

The next step in this was to make the process more mobile and efficient, as having to stop and rest your riffle against something was not the most effective way to deploy the weapon. With this came the Matchlock in the 1400’s. The matchlock provided a clamp that held and swung the wick into the flash pan, thus igniting the powder and firing the weapon. This was still very unreliable as it was highly susceptible to moisture, as both the powder and the wick were exposed to the elements. The question then remained on how to keep both the ignition source and the powder dry and still ignite it.

The introduction of a new ignition source and use of a flash pan partially solved these problems.  With that in mind, the Flintlock was invented around 1630. This solved both problem of keeping the ignition source dry and partially protected the gunpowder within the flash from the elements.  The flint was knapped the same way any stone tool is, shaped to be held by a clamp within the cocking mechanism. Once the trigger was pulled, the spring loaded cock swung forward, striking and opening the frizzen.  This in turn revealed the black powder beneath and the impact of flint with steel created a spark which ignited the charge. Seen below is an example of one such gun flint and how it works. The lesson here is that sometimes you have to look to the past to find solutions for the future.

The next major leap in lock technology arrived at the beginning of the nineteenth century with the development of the percussion cap. The flint lock was replaced with a simple hammer mechanism.  The frizzen was removed and replaced with a “nipple.”  A small power charged encased within a brass procession cap was then placed, inverted over the nipple.  When the hammer struck the cap, the charge traveled through the nipple and into the barrel.  This advancement not only protected the ignition charge from the elements, but also reduced the amount of time necessary to prepare the weapon for its next shot.  This greatly increased the potential rate of fire and, combined with other improvements such as rifled barrels and self-contained rounds with rings to grab the rifling, forever changed the battlefield landscape.  This change can be seen in the drastic increase in firearm lethality between the American Revolution and Civil Wars.

To see examples of the flintlock gun part, go to


Edited by Christopher Sperling – Staff Archaeologist

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Bi-Weekly Update


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Piscataway Points

By Elizabeth PaynterLab Director

One common point type found in our region is the Piscataway Point. This type of point can be found from Virginia to New Jersey. Projectile points types are defined by certain physical characteristics.Anataomy of Piscataway.jpg

The base is the most important area of a point. This is the hafting area (aka hafting element) where a point or blade was attached to a handle or shaft on items such as darts, spears, arrows, and knives. Without the base of a point it is difficult to impossible to determine what the point type is, and, therefore almost impossible to determine the date when the tool was made. See “Let’s Get to the Point about Typologies”. As you can see from the picture, the base of a Piscataway is rounded or pointed, small and contracts. Weak almost nonexistent shoulders separate the base from the blade.

Piscataway points are similar to, but smaller and narrower than the Rossville point. Overall Piscataway points are somewhat small with a total length of approximately 29 to 49 mm and a width of 10 to 21 mm. The blade is usually long, narrow and triangular in shape. The blade edges are most often straight or slightly convex and occasionally beveled. The cross section of the blade is lenticular and thick.

Piscataway Points.jpg

Piscataway points in our area are often of quartz or quartzite although the points have been found made of a variety of other stone.

There is some debate on the time period in which this type of point can be found. The Virginia Department of Historic Resources has stated the dates for the Piscataway Point as 1000 to 500 BCE during the Early Woodland. CART currently uses this date range for the point; however, there is evidence that the point has been found in the earlier Late Archaic contexts.

Note: As always, if you find this point or any artifact on park or government land, it is illegal to move or disturb it. Instead note the exact location and contact your local archaeologists through the county or the state department of historic resources. If you are on private land and have permission to collect, remember that disturbing any site can result in the loss of important information about the past. Recording as much detailed information with minimal disturbance about the location of artifacts and their relation to each other in physical space both horizontally and vertically is a part of combatting this loss.


MAC Lab. 2012. Diagnostic Artifacts in Maryland. Maryland Archaeological Conservation Lab (MAAC Lab). Originally Published 2002. Electronic. accessed September 14, 2016

VDHR Collections. Native American Comparative Collections. Virginia Department of Historic Resources. Electronic. accessed September 14, 2016


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