Like clusters of little floral arrangements, Nancy Schmidt's collection of hatpins and holders make a unique statement. Now numbering more than 300, she lovingly displays the pieces in her Crystal Lake home. And her collection keeps growing. Adding to those acquired by her grandmother and mother many years ago, Nancy loves to prowl antiques stores and markets to find more of the cherished treasures. "It's not so much that I want to add to my collection, but I like to pick up pieces as rememberances of special places I've been," she qualifies.
Nancy has collected for years. Even as a little girl she remembers being on the lookout for special pieces. Today other family members also do their share of adding to her pool of pins and holders. "It's amazing how family members come up with these things. Because of their histories, they are fun gifts to receive."
Early hatpin examples date from 17th century England. Originally created by hand to fasten veils and wimples, making hatpins was initially a cottage industry. By the 19th century, as hats came in to style, manufacturing pins moved to the mainstream in the world of Victorian fashion. Big hats were all the rage and they needed to be fastened to the voluminous hairstyles of the day. Birmingham became the heart of the hatpin industry. Keeping up with the demand was challenging and soon French imports were introduced into the market. In response to the trade imbalance, Parliment enacted a law that kept the purchase of pins to two days at the beginning of January. Ladies would save their money all year to buy their pins on the designated days. Some scholars feel this is the orgin of the term "pin money." Others believe the term came from a tax Queen Victoria placed on her subjects to pay for her pins. Regardless, hatpins and their holders meant big business in the Victorian era.
Although they were originally designed to be functional, hatpins were also made to be shown off - they were the ultimate fashion accessory of their day. "To a degree, hat pins symbolized freedom," Nancy notes. "Hats did not have to be tied down anymore. The pins provided a measure of safety and security because they could be used as a weapon too, if necessary." From time to time, Nancy wears pins in her hats and when she does, she always creates a sensation. They always get noticed.
The variety is endless. Many pins and holders were designed in the Art Nouveau style. Generally, the shafts, or stems, of the pins range in length from two inches up to twelve inches. But the "head" that crowns the stick is the part of the piece that delights collectors. Porcelain flowers, shells, decorative buttons, precious and semi-precious stones, intricate metalwork... the combinations and designs are astounding, often whimsical, and always intriguing.
Debbie McArdle, proprietor of Iron Horse Antiques and an exhibitor at the Coloial Antique Mall in Woodstock, has several suggestions for those who are interested in establishing hatpin and holder collections. She notes that for every woman who had a selection of pins to wear, she probably used only one holder. Because the holders were usually made of porcelain, finding ones in good condition, without cracks or chips, can sometimes be a challenge. Silver holders are rare and often pricey. Debbie also notes that the Art Nouveau style in which many of the pins and holders were designed, may not suit everyone's taste. "Shops have to have things that appeal to the local clientele. I've found that antiques dealers in big cities like Chicago and New York and those located in the South tend to carry more pieces than those in suburban areas." She also recommends eBay as a resource. "Use it as a tool as well as a means to add to your collection. It will give you an idea of what's hot in the market. Look at 'completed auctions' for prices and descriptions." Prices for both pins and holders average $50 to $200, although she has seen them as high as $1,100.
Debbie also cautions collectors to be wary of reproductions, which are everywhere. "Only buy from shops that guarantee authenticity and refunds. If you are at an antiques market or fair, talk to the dealers - ask a lot of questions about the provenance (history), where it was acquired, how old the piece is. Be sure to get a signed receipt with a contact name, address, and phone number. On eBay, check the feedback rating and comments about other buyers' transactions."
A good way to tell whether a pin is authentic or a reproduction is to look at the way the top of the hatpin joins the shaft. There should be no glue, solder, ill-fitting parts, or other tell-tale signs of damage or altered construction. Make sure metals match and that the design of the head is consistent to the apparent age of the pin. Settings should fit well. The decorative element of the head should be in proportion to the rest of the piece. Holders can be faked too. Salt shakers, vases, and incense burners are just some of the items that are passed off as hatpin holders. "You can usually tell if a holder is authentic by its weight. Also, check for tiny lines on the foot which could be a sign of being moved across a dressing table - of it actually being used," Debbie recommends.
Summing up Nancy's collection, Debbie observes, "A collection like Nancy's is particularly interesting because it was started at a time when everything was so exquisite. They did not have to worry about reproductions back then. It would be difficult to replicate it now."
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