Antique hatpins are a delightfully small and relatively cheap collectible that makes for great gifts for the people in your life who have a penchant for antique aesthetics. Sometimes mistaken for regular straight pins, these haberdashery accessories come in a myriad of colors, shapes, and styles perfect for every taste.
A Brief History of Hatpins
While hatpins have been used as far back as the 15th century, they were most popular during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Evolving style and manufacturing methods created the perfect environment for hatpins to thrive.
Hatpins in the early 1800s were handmade by families in the trade. By 1820, France was the prime place to import hatpins from and concurrently, in 1820, the British Parliament passed an act making it so people could only buy imported hatpins on January 1st and 2nd each year. These manufacturing and purchasing restrictions made hatpins a rare commodity in the early 19th century.
Mainstream Hatpin Manufacturing
In 1832, the pin making machine was invented in the United States, and countries like England and France created their own machines soon after. In the late 19th and early 20th century, women wishing to do away with the traditional bonnets held on by ribbons began needing hatpins to keep their hats on. In England, the Charles Horner jewelry company became a leader in mass producing hatpins to meet demands. Leading hatpin manufacturers in the U.S. in the early 20th century include:
- Unger Bros.
- The William Link Co.
- The Paye & Baker Mfg. Co.
- Tiffany & Co.
Hatpins Fall out of Fashion
As women's hairstyles and fashions changed, hat pins became obsolete. Strict social expectations and restrictive fashion of the Edwardian social elite gave way to the short bobbed haircuts and bare heads of the 1920s and 1930s. Thus, elaborate hat pins were no longer necessary when people stopped wearing huge, heavy hats that needed to be secured into place.
Hatpins Turn Into Deadly Weapons
While hatpins were widely used to hold hats in place, they evolved to serve another purpose for women: deadly weapons. After instances of women staving off attackers with hatpins and even men dying after being stabbed with 12-inch hatpins, men came to fear these little decorative accessories. In 1908 and 1909, men started to view hatpins as potential weapons, and laws were enacted to limit their size and use, such as limiting the size of hatpins to just 9 inches.
Historic Tutorial for Wearing Old Hatpins
If you're interested in historical costuming and want to try using your own hatpins, it only takes a few steps to get it situated just right. To use a hatpin, find a good spot on the hat where the pin won't leave an ugly hole, and:
- Stick the sharp end of the pin through the hat gently while it sits on your head.
- Make sure the pin goes underneath a section of hair. This section of hair will sit between the pin and your hat, just as it would for your regular hair pins/bobby pins.
- Push the pin back through the hat a few inches from your entry point, and voila!
Popular Materials for Hat Pins
Over the years, manufacturers have crafted hat pins out of a variety of materials:
- Sterling silver - Sterling silver was one of the most popular hat pin materials. Elaborate designs featured high-relief images of flowers, ladies, and many other motifs. Despite these ornate designs, they were quite affordable.
- Gold - Gold hat pins were harder to come by, but ladies sometimes received them as gifts. Many gold pins featured gemstones or semi-precious gems.
- Brass and copper - Brass and copper hat pins, sometimes plated in gold or silver, were a more affordable option. These sometimes featured rhinestones, paste gems, or glass.
- Natural materials - Natural materials also decorated hat pins. These included mother-of-pearl, tortoise shell, jet, ivory, amber, and coral.
- Plastics - Man-made materials and early plastics were also a popular choice. Hat pins of the early 20th century featured bakelite and celluloid embellishments.
Popular Types of Antique Hatpins
Hatpins were like the earrings of the late-Victorian period; there was one for every occasion, and one to match every kind of outfit out there. Since there were so many examples made at the time and a large number of them have survived to today, it can be overwhelming trying to pin down exactly which one you're looking at in a collection of them. However, there are a few categories that stand out among the mass manufactured lot that you organize antique hatpins into.
Working Girl Hatpins
These basic hatpins were machine made with either a white or black bead on the end of a pin. Many refer to them as "working girl" hatpins because they were pins used by the everyday woman of the Victorian era.
These are the hatpins that were clearly made by skilled jewelers with ornate designs and high-end materials. They were made from 14K, 16K, or 18K gold and were worn by high society women, often crafted by the most talented jewelers of the period.
Hallmarked hatpins are pretty rare to find today, but they're recognized by having some type of identifying mark on the stem or topper. This mark can tell you who the maker of the hatpin was.
Opera hatpins were specially made to serve more than one purpose. When you removed your opera hatpin, you could open the clasp to find a hook on the end. You could then use this hook to hang your hat on the end of your chair so your hat wouldn't disturb the other patron's views.
Compact hatpins have a powder puff and mirror inside the head of the pin. This head could open up just like a modern makeup compact would, making it a unique multi-purposed accessory.
Plique-à-Jour Enamel Hatpins
Plique-à-jour literally means "open to light" and is a kind of enamel used to make some hatpins. These are very rare finds, especially intact, and can sell for a few thousand dollars. For instance, a Rene Lalique plique-a-jour hatpin from 1895 sold at a Christie's Auction for $9,436.17.
During World War I, metal use for jewelry was limited and hats became smaller, so hatpins made during this time were downsized. It was common for women to take the military buttons from their man and have them made into hatpins. These sweet hatpins are commonly referred to as military hatpins.
Hatpins That Serve as Vanities
This unusual type of hatpin has a straight pin inside it that could be used for sewing or a cloth in it that could be used for perfume. Hatpins that serve as vanities are highly collectible because of how uncommon they are to find.
Art Nouveau Hatpins
Art Nouveau hatpin designs are associated with nature, femininity, and fertility. These were mostly made of silver and have free-flowing lines, and are really collectible today.
Arts and Crafts Hatpins
Arts and Crafts style hatpins tend to be more unique, because they rejected the idea of mass production. They were simplistic in design with hand hammered details featuring brass and light stones.
Art Deco Hatpins
Before Art Deco was popular in furniture and architecture, you can see it emerge as a design style on items like hatpins. This style emerged in the interwar period, and includes sleek geometrical designs with brighter colors. Iridescent glass hatpins and celluloid glass hatpins are examples of the Art Deco styles beginning to solidify in the fashion and accessories of the age.
Fake Hatpins to Avoid
Finding fake hatpins is much easier than finding authentic antique hatpins. One hatpin enthusiast from the American Hatpin Society named Jodi shares, "I love to go antiquing, but I do not really expect to find a good hatpin in the 'run-of-the-mill' antique store." Most of what she finds in standard antique shops and even online falls into one of three types of fake hatpins.
Jodi refers to fantasy hatpins, or fantasies, as "beads-on-a-stick." She says, "These 'fantasy' hatpins are recently made hatpins of contemporary glass and metal beads. They don't resemble any period hatpin." Common fantasy hatpins include House of Joy hatpins from the Netherlands, Czech glass hatpins, and flapper/Dolly dingle hatpins.
Like many other popular antiques, modern companies make reproductions of antique-looking hatpins all the time. These hatpins are artificially aged to look older than they are hatpins, but are made with newer materials or in bulk batches, so the trained eye can tell them apart from a genuine antique.
According to Jodi, a marriage hatpin is "a vintage button or brooch that has been made into a hatpin, with an authentic hatpin stem." The head and the stem may be vintage or antique pieces, but they did not originally come from a hatpin. A sign of a marriage is a finding that is not typical of the hatpin era, joining a real hatpin stem to a period button or brooch. Sometimes you can see two marks on the brooch back where the brooch pin was once attached.
How to Identify an Authentic Antique Hat Pin
The best place to start when identifying authentic antique hatpins is to understand the jewelry styles and construction during the prime hatpin era, which Jodi says is the late Victorian era and the Edwardian era. She warns, "Even after one has become educated and has learned what was typical of hatpin styles and construction during the hatpin era, a suspect hatpin can generate lively discussion and disagreement among veteran collectors."
Tips for Assessing Authenticity
While there're not hard-and-fast ways to tell if a hatpin is a true antique, there are a few key indicators that Jodi says you can look for. The more of these indicators you find, the better the chances are that you have an authentic antique and not a reproduction:
- Prong or bezel set - Rhinestones were usually prong set or bezel set as they were not glued in.
- High tables - Rhinestones tended to have high tables (where the top is cut off the stone). Contemporary rhinestones have low tables (cut down lower on the stone).
- Head and stem joints - Examine the "finding," or the piece that joins the hatpin head to the stem. Check to see that it hasn't been artificially joined or soldered together.
- Centered finding - Look for the finding to be centered properly in the middle of the back of the hatpin. If the finding is part of a "bridge," it should be properly centered and in good repair.
- No soldering - Authentic hatpins do not show solder, except for the military buttons made into hatpins during World War I.
- Period accurate colors and stones - Being aware of colors and materials that were typical of that era, such amethyst and amber, versus garish reds, is helpful.
- Balance - Consider how the hatpin would look when put through a hat. If the hatpin head would not display well in a hat or would be too heavy for the hat, it's probably not an authentic hatpin.
- No stainless steel - There was no stainless steel being used during the height of hatpin production, so you shouldn't be buying hatpins with stainless steel stems.
- Bent and misshapen stems - Antique hatpins were pushed and used, so it wouldn't be uncommon to find them bent or misshapen.
How Much Do Antique Hatpins Cost?
For a piece of antique jewelry, hatpins are surprisingly low-priced. Fine examples hardly reach prices above $100 unless they were created by luxury brands, include expensive materials such as precious gemstones and metals, or belonged to a historically significant figure.
Additionally, hatpins that have actual branding information on them add some value to their final prices. However, most of these branded pieces were marked in European manufacturing based on their country's requirements for marking precious metals. Take, for instance, brands like Charles Horner and Pearce & Thompson.
Thankfully, most antique hat pins that you can find at auction or for sale today aren't listed for more than $50, though there are a few exceptions. Take all of these antique hatpins that've recently come to market, for example:
- Early 20th century hatpin in mint condition with amethyst nodder - Sold for $39.99
- Sterling Silver Art Nouveau hatpin - Sold for $24.99
- Edwardian Pearce & Thompson silver topped steel hatpins circa 1911 - Sold for around $118.96
- Charles Horner silver and enamel hat pin - Sold for $266.08
- Huge turn of the century collection of hat pins - Valued for $10,000-$12,000
Buy Your Own Antique Hatpins Online
You can absolutely find antique hatpins at local antique shops and thrift stores hidden away in bins and buckets of assorted jewelry, and there's something fun about sifting through everything to hunt one down. However, the quickest way to get a particular style or period of hatpin is to look for ones online. A few of the best places to look include:
- Victorian Trading Post - The Victorian Trading Post is an online retailer that sells both reproduction and antique hat pins and associated accessories, such as hat pin holders.
- 1st Dibs - 1st Dibs is an online retailer that partners with antique dealers and businesses to broker their online sales, and they have a whole host of valuable antique hatpins.
- Etsy - If you're looking for an assortment of antique and vintage hatpins for a variety of prices, then Etsy is a great place to go.
- eBay - Everyone's go-to auction website is a great place to find antiques on the fly, but there is some danger with making sure the ones that you're buying are authentic. So, talk carefully with the seller and get as much information as you can before purchasing.
- Gem - Expedite your internet shopping with Gem. Both a website and an app, Gem scours the internet for listings of antique and vintage apparel and accessories. While you can frequently find listings from eBay and other marketplaces, Gem pinpoints the most accurate listings to your search query so that you don't have to hunt through the listings on your own.
Collectors Guides for Identifying and Valuing Antique Hat Pins
If you've got a few antique and vintage hatpins from your grandparents and great-grandparents lying around, and you'd like to learn more about them, these books are some of the foundational texts on the subject:
- Baker's Encyclopedia of Hatpins and Hatpin Holders by Lillian Baker
- Estate Jewelry 1760-1960 by Diana Sanders Cinamon
- Hatpins and Hatpin Holders: An Illustrated Value Guide by Lillian Baker
- Hat Pins by Eve Eckstein and June Ferkins
Put a Pin in It
It's time to put a pin in it, antique style. Whether you like to recreate historical costumes or have a fascination with historic hats and headwear, antique hatpins can make for a beautiful and functional collectible perfect for all budgets.