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1850s Beaded Pincushion Artifact Highlight #49

This pincushion was donated to our collection in 1952. It is made of velvet and cotton and is decorated with glass beads. In the center is a bird on a branch surrounded by a rope border. The scalloped edge has a design made with colored beads and remnants of a beaded fringe. The pincushion dates to around 1857.

Scheveningen Woman Sewing - Van Gogh, 1881

During the 19th century, women did not often find themselves with nothing to do and many occupied themselves with sewing clothing and needlework that included embroidery, tatting, lace work, sewing of monograms on household linen and making handkerchiefs and pincushions.

The Industrial Revolution made needlework supplies more affordable and available. Before John Howe invented the first practical machine for manufacturing pins in 1832, pins were made by hand.

Howe's Pinmaking Machine

They were expensive, in high demand and their shaping required 18 separate steps. Early factories produced fewer than 5,000 pins a day, but by 1835 Howe’s machine was able to produce 70,000 in the same amount of time.

Pincushions came in many designs and were made of different materials. Some were very simple, made of scraps of fabric filled with sand or sawdust.

The Placer Herald, June 27, 1896

Others were made of velvet, mounted on silver, china, or wooden bases, and decorated with glass beads, embroidery, lace, and porcelain dolls. They were often stored with other sewing implements in special needle cases or sewing baskets and were a collectable item. Pincushion designs included animals, shoes, fruits, and vegetables, like the tomato, which is still popular today. According to Victorian folklore, the tomato was a symbol of prosperity, and when a family moved to a new home a fresh tomato was placed on the mantle for good luck and to ward off evil spirits. Some of the tomato pincushions have a small strawberry attached to it filled with emery powder for cleaning and sharpening pins.

The pincushion was donated by Minnie A. Ludwig Shafsky. Minnie was born in 1880 in Auburn. She was the daughter of Caroline Keehner Ludwig, who came to California from Germany and made a name for herself as a moneylender and property owner in Auburn. In 1904 she married Louis Shafsky, a local dry goods store owner. Shortly after the wedding, the couple moved to the Bay Area. After Louis died in 1933 Minnie resided in Berkeley and died there in 1962.

The pincushion is on display at the Bernhard Museum.

Minnie Shafski, PCM Collection

The above dress, that belonged to Minnie Shafski, is featured in Artifact Highlight #15.

Background Image: Minnie Shafski in her wedding dress. PCM Collection.