Thimbles:   Drab Dross or Tiny Treasures

Thimbles had been in use around the world for several millenia by the time the Prince of Wales became Regent of England. But by the Regency, they were no longer just simple implements which many needleworkers used to protect their fingers while sewing. They were also sometimes given as costly gifts or love tokens; some were used as a unit of measure; and still others were employed in games, at least one of which was a rather disreputable game of chance. Despite its small size, a thimble might play a big part in a Regency romance.

Thimbles through the Regency . . .

The earliest known metal thimble was found in a grave in China which dates to the Han Dynasty. However, it is generally believed that thimbles have been in use for at least 30,000 years, many centuries before the Han Dynasty began. It must be noted that there is no definitive evidence on when or where the very first thimble was made or used. Many of those early thimbles were probably made of materials other than metal, including bone and leather, but very few of them are known to have survived into modern times.

Scholars have shown that thimbles were in use in Continental Europe from at least the ninth century. Many of those thimbles were made of bone, others were made of thick leather, and even more were made of metal, usually iron or bronze. Some were made in the shape of a wide ring, with both ends open, while others were made in a dome-like shape, with one closed end. By the late Middle Ages, Germany, particularly the city of Nuremberg, had become the center of thimble-making on the Continent. However, high-quality thimbles were also made in other countries, particularly France and Holland. In the thirteenth century, the method by which a thimble was made determined which French craftsmen could make them. Those thimbles which were made by sand casting were produced by buckle-makers, while those which were hammered over a die were made by button makers. It was not until the fifteenth century that European thimble-makers began to establish their own guilds.

The use of thimbles in England can only be dated from the fifteenth century. However, until the late seventeenth century, thimbles still had to be imported into Britain, which had yet to develop its own native thimble-making industry. The first metal thimble was made in England in 1695, a few years after a Dutch metal worker, John Lofting, had migrated to Britain. Lofting settled in Islington, where he set up a workshop to manufacture brass thimbles.The evidence suggests that the majority of Lofting’s thimbles were made of cast brass, using the traditional sand-casting method. By the turn of the eighteenth century, he had invented a machine which enabled him to produce a much larger volume of thimbles with much less effort, and at a significantly lower price than imported thimbles. The mechanization of the process had an effect on the shape of thimbles. Hand-made thimbles were fairly thick and had a very obvious dome-shaped top. Machine-made thimbles were not only thinner, but they also had a flatter top. However, the tiny dimples, which are a nearly ubiquitous feature of most thimbles, still had to be pressed into machine-made thimbles by hand. It was not until the mid-nineteenth century that they could be pressed in by a new version of the thimble-making machine.

Eventually, the mechanized process for the making metal thimbles became more widely known across Britain. By the mid-eighteenth century, metal thimble production was centered around Birmingham, the industrial powerhouse of the British Midlands. Despite the fact that the mechanization of the thimble-making process had become fairly well-known across the British Isles, it had not yet spread across much of Europe. By the mid-eighteenth century, Sweden, in particular, did not yet have their own thimble manufacturing industry and was still having to import all of their thimbles. They were so eager to establish their own thimble-making industry that they engaged in some covert industrial espionage in order to learn the secrets of the process. There is some suggestion that Austria, as well as a few other countries, may have done the same.

In the German states, a thimble was called a fingerhut, meaning a finger cap. However, the English name for this useful sewing notion was derived from another digit, the thumb. Sailors and others who did heavy sewing work often wore the little domed notion on their thumb, and, since most looked like a small bell, initially they came to be known as a thumb-bell. Over time, that name became contracted into thimble. Fingers also influenced the name of this sewing notion in both Italy and Spain. Thimble in Italian is ditale and dedal in Spanish. In France, the thimble was thought to be so essential to sewing that it was known as dé à coudre, literally meaning "with which to sew."

Through the Middle Ages, thimbles in Europe were made primarily for the purpose of protecting the fingers while sewing. But in the sixteenth century, special luxury thimbles, usually made of silver or gold, began to be created. Some were even set with precious or semi-precious gems to further enhance their value as a unique gift. Such luxurious thimbles were considered an ideal gift for a lady. Records show that Queen Elizabeth I gave a jewel-encrusted thimble as a gift to one of her favorite ladies-in-waiting. Gold and silver are relatively soft metals, which meant that thimbles made from those metals were not usually strong enough to push a threaded needle through cloth without the harder metal of the needle sometimes piercing the thimble. In addiction, some of these gift thimbles were set with so many gemstones that it was not really practical to use them. Therefore, most of these valuable luxury thimbles could not actually be employed for the purpose of sewing. However, they did provide a convenient means by which a lady could carry, or even hide, something of significant financial worth.

In the early decades of the eighteenth century, expensive luxury gift thimbles were no longer made only of precious metals. They were also being made of white gold, the even more precious commodity of porcelain. The first porcelain thimbles were created at the Meissen manufactory in Saxony, where the secret of making porcelain in Europe had first been discovered. But by the end of the century, nearly every porcelain manufactory in Europe was producing porcelain thimbles. Most porcelain thimbles, like other gift thimbles, were unsuitable for pushing a needle and thread through cloth. They were enjoyed primarily as diminutive curiosities. In fact, by the turn of the nineteenth century, porcelain and bone china thimbles were one of the first purpose-made souvenirs. Quite a number of popular tourist destinations, in Britain and on the Continent, had porcelain thimbles made for sale to travelers. In most cases, these thimbles were painted or printed with an image of a local point of interest or, occasionally, just the name of the area. Though most porcelain or china thimbles were originally made solely as keepsakes or curiosities, by the Regency, a number of porcelain or bone china thimbles made in England were quite sturdy. So much so that some seamstresses preferred to use a porcelain thimble when stitching light-weight silk or other fine fabrics. This was primarily due to the fact that procelain thimbles were usually much smoother than most metal thimbles and would not snag the cloth. Most of them were also quite pretty, as well.

Even before the Regency began, gift thimbles were made of gold, silver and porcelain. By our favorite decade, they were also being made of glass, carved semi-precioius stone, fine wood, mother-of-pearl, ivory, enamel, tortoiseshell, and even papier-mâché. At the same time, functional, utilitarian thimbles were still being made, generally of brass, steel, pewter, and iron, as well as bone, horn, wood and leather. Practical, serviceable thimbles, most of them made of brass, were sold for just a few pence, while gift thimbles, made of luxury materials, could cost from a few hundred pounds to as much as a thousand pounds or more, depending upon the materials from which they were made. Functional thimbles could be purchased from traveling chapmen, or from haberdashers, linen drapers or purveyors of dry goods nearly anywhere. Luxury gift thimbles were typically created by talented upscale goldsmiths or jewellers working in the larger cities, and were usually hand-made, generally on commission.

Some luxury thimbles were made with a small case in which to store them. That subject is well beyond the scope of this article. However, some of these special thimbles were made as a case for other objects. Typically, the inside of the base of the thimble was threaded to match a metal disk which was then screwed into the base. The hollow cavity of the thimble could then be filled with anything small enough to fit within it. With some thimbles, a tiny figurine was set in the base and was only revealed when the thimble was unscrewed. Others held a small charm which was not connected to the base. Perhaps the most popular was a thimble which held a very small bottle, usually made of glass, though some were made of metal. These tiny bottles could be used to hold perfume, though it is known that at least a few were filled with hartshorn or smelling salts. Of course, the owner of one of these miniature bottles which was hidden inside a thimble could fill it with any liquid she pleased.

Thimbles with a threaded base were also sometimes used as a the cover for a small sewing kit. The thimble served as a cap on a cylindrical tube which typically held a couple of needles, a few pins and one or two small winders around which were wrapped lengths of sewing thread. Some of the more sophisticated and elegant of these sewing kits even contained a very small pair of scissors or a tiny knife with which to cut the thread. A lady might slip one of these small, discrete sewing kits into her reticule when she went out for the evening. With her little sewing kit handy, a lady could make an emergency repair to her clothing while she was away from home, should that be necessary.

Luxury thimbles were usually given as gifts to ladies, to commemorate an important date or event. They were also sometimes given as a token of love from the lady’s husband or lover. A few mistresses actually preferred the gift of a fine gold or silver thimble encrusted with gems from their paramour, rather than regular pieces of jewelry, since they were easy to store, or to sell, if the need arose. However, less luxurious thimbles were also given as a sign of love. A few of the strict religious sects, such as the Puritans, did not hold with the wearing of most jewelry, even engagement rings. It had become the custom in some of these sects for the fiance to give his intended bride a thimble instead of an engagement ring. The young woman would use the thimble as she stitched the linens and clothing which would constitute of her dowry or trousseau. After the wedding ceremony, the upper portion of the thimble was cut off, as a symbol that her dowry was complete and she was now a wife. The cut edge of the rim would be smoothed down and the lady could wear the resulting band as a wedding ring. Many of the thimbles intended for this purpose were made of brass or steel and often the lower section was ornamented with a narrow pattern of flowers or other symbols of love, thereby making it even more appropriate for such a purpose.

During the Regency, thimbles were not used only for needlework. They were also sometimes used as a unit of measure. With regard to alcoholic beverages, the request for a "thimbleful" was not always literal, but it did mean a very small quantity was needed or wanted. However, it is known that at least a few silversmiths produced rather large thimbles. Some of them were so large that they could hold as much as a half to a full ounce of fluid. Though such large thimbles were useless when it came to needlework, they would almost certainly have pleased someone who was supposed to be abstaining from spiritous beverages. That person could measure out their drink using their special thimble and "honestly" say they had only had a thimbleful. Those large thimbles were usually known as peg- or pony-thimbles. Even today, one sometimes sees a shot glass or jigger which is made in the shape of a thimble.

When it came to gunpowder, a thimble was often actually used to measure that commodity. From the early seventeenth century, more than one instruction manual on the use of guns specified a thimbleful, or half a thimble, of gunpowder in the preparation of gun cartridges. By the turn of the nineteenth century, manuals were also published on how to make fireworks. One of those instruction manuals, The Art of Making All Kinds of Fireworks, Including Squibs, Serpents, Crackers, Sky Rockets, Marrons, Wheels, . . . , the third edition of which was published in London, in 1813. The instructions for making "Squibs and Serpents" in that book specified that about a half a thimbleful of powder should be poured into the case and tamped down with a ruler. More powder should then be poured into the case in small amounts. The powder should then be firmly tamped down after each pour until the case was full.

Thimbles were also used for games even before the Regency began. One was a innocent schoolroom game, Hide the Thimble, which was popular with children. One member of a group was chosen to "hide" the thimble, then the others would seek it out. However, the basic rules required that the thimble be placed somewhere in the room where it could be seen without opening drawers or cupboards, moving furniture or in any other way disturbing the normal arrangement of the room. The idea of the game was to place the thimble in plain sight, but in such a location that it was not easy to spot at any distance. After the thimble was "hidden," the other members of the group would return to the room and try to find it. The player who found the thimble first would then become the "hider" for the next round. In some versions of the game, the player who found the thimble most often would be given some small prize, while the winner in some versions of the game would acquire only bragging rights.

A much less innocent game played with thimbles was known most commonly as thimble-rigging. This game was essentially the same as the infamous shell game. In thimble-rigging, three thimbles were placed on a flat surface, with a pea, bead or other small round item hidden under one of them. The three thimbles were then rapidly moved around over the surface by the thimble-rigger who ran the game. The player would then have to lay a wager regarding under which thimble the pea was to be found. This game was on offer at many large public gatherings, such as fairs and market days. However, the thimble-rigmen were even more likely to be found plying their trade at large spectator sporting events, such as race meetings, boxing mills and cock fights. The authorities objected to these games because most thimble-riggers palmed the pea after seeming to place it under one of the thimbles before moving them around. Thus, the players were seldom ever able to win their bets on which thimble hid the pea since it was not under any of them. Even before the beginning of the Regency, it had become common to call anyone who often cheated a thimble-rigger.

There was another, even less decorous use of thimbles which began in the eighteenth century, and seems to have continued in some places as late as the Regency. A number of women of the evening used a thimble to tap on the window or door of a residence or business office to notify the inhabitant that they were present and their services were available. This practice became generally known as "thimble-knocking." Curiously, by the mid-Victorian period, a number of school teachers were in the habit of thumping misbehaving students on the head with a thimble. This disciplinary measure also came to be known as thimble-knocking.

Dear Regency Authors, could a thimble find a place in the plot of a Regency romance you are planning? Might the hero give an engraved silver thimble to the heroine as a pledge of his love before he departs for the Peninsular War, or before the Battle of Waterloo? Could it be that the villainess is planning to poison your heroine, or another character, with a powerful poison which she has hidden in a tiny bottle inside a thimble? How will her scheme be foiled, and by whom? Then again, might one of your characters be taken in by a thimble-rigger while attending a race meeting. Will the cheat be caught, or will your character have to suffer the financial loss and the embarassent? On a more innocent note, might the heroine, the governess, be playing Hide the Thimble with the children in her charge. Will the hero take part, to the the delight of the children and maybe to the discomfiture of the young lady? How might that eventually bring the couple together? Are there other ways in which a thimble might help you stitch together the plot of a story of Regency romance?

About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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3 Responses to Thimbles:   Drab Dross or Tiny Treasures

  1. I am thinking that a young lady with a thimble etui saves a young man snagged on a thorn from embarrassment by stitching up his torn coat. whether he is the hero or youthful charge of the hero could lead to different situations

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      How very decorous of you to make the snagged garment a coat! 😉 There is certainly much promise in that plot bunny, both humorous and romantic.

      Regards,

      Kat

      • In my experience there are three main places young men need sewing up after encounters with feral and vicious plants. 1. the arm, including the shoulder 2. the knees 3. the buttocks. I did think that it would be something a young woman might shy away from if it were number 3.
        Of course the other one is ripped pockets but it only tends to work with patch pockets so not costume of the period unless we go back to the big pockets of an earlier age … of course a youth could be sewn up across the prat of his skeleton suit with less loss of face

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