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Stories Before 1850. 0130: Anon., The History of a Pin

Author: Anon.
Title: The history of a pin, as related by itself. Interspersed with a variety of anecdotes, pointing out to the youth of both sexes, the superiority of a generous mind over one that is narrow and uncultivated. By the author of The Brothers, A Tale for Children', etc.
Cat. Number: 0130
Date: 1801
1st Edition: 1798
Pub. Place: London
Publisher: E. Newbery, at the Corner of St. Paul's Church-Yard
Price: Unknown
Pages: 1 vol., 101pp. plus 4-page booklist
Size: 12.5 x 8 cm
Illustrations: Engraved frontispiece
Note: Inscription on back fly-leaves: 'Sophia Whiteman / Danford / 1806'

Images of all pages of this book

Page 005 of item 0130

Introductory essay

Histories of inanimate objects, narrated by themselves as they went on their picaresque way through the world, were frequent in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The vogue had started in novels designed for adults, an early example being Charles Johnstone's Chrysal, or the Adventures of a Guinea (1760-65). They were popular because they presented a miscellany of adventures in many different warps of life, for it was easy to have the guinea, or the medallion, or whatever it was, fall into almost any social situation. Second, such novels offered many opportunities for social satire, the narrating object being able to comment on the secret dealings of each of its temporary possessors.

When the form was adapted for children's literature, as here, some of the satirical elements remained, but they were modified to fit the particular concerns of children's authors. Here, for instance, the eponymous pin often comments, as it is passed from person to person, on the importance of education, and the dreadful results of not paying attention to one's teachers. When the pin is locked in a chest by a miser, for example, it comments on his errors for the benefit of the young reader: 'How must thy education have been neglected! had thy mind been enriched with knowledge, thy soul enlarged by a proper sense of moral duty, thou wouldst not, as now, harden thy heart against the feelings of humanity.' (p.35). More often, when this literary form was employed for children, the protagonist became an animal, usually a dog or a cat, but the structure of such tales was the same, the narrator commenting on the vices and virtues of its various owners. See, for instance, Mary Pilkington's Marvellous Adventures; or, the Vicissitudes of a Cat (0197).

The pin begins its life in the Dormer family. It is used by the mother of the family, who employs it to point out the letters in an alphabet to her children. A temper tantrum by one of the young scholars leads to the pin being dropped, and thus it begins its journey through the world. A maid picks it up, and so the pin goes below stairs for a while. It is used to secure some old clothes sold to a 'Jew pedlar', and as a result it passes out of the household and into a Jewish family where it is again used to help teach a child his hornbook. From there it passes to the miser, to an unchariable heiress, to an honest servant, to a mendacious French governess ('who possessed all the duplicity of her country', p.60), to a chariable girl named Viola Paulet, and then to the poor widow to whom Viola has been so benevolent, Mrs. Colebrook. Only here, at the close, does a sustained narrative develop, with Mrs. Colebrook suddenly inheriting a fortune, and Viola losing hers. Needless to say, Mrs. Colebrook supports Viola in her distress, repaying her for her earlier charity. As is common in this kind of narrative, the pin ends up with its first owners, for the Dormers live near to the mansion to which Mrs. Colebrook moves. Indeed, on the final page of the text, we find that the frontispiece depicts Miss Dormer copying one of Viola's drawings. In fact, this is also a portrait of the pin, our narrator, which is being used to hold up the canvas.

The History of a Pin has been attributed to Miss Eliza Andrews (by F. Algar of Ilford, Essex) and to Miss Smythies of Colchester (by older versions of the British Museum General Catalogue. Sydney Roscoe, bibliographer of the Newbery firm, prefers the latter attribution, although he admitted that he had not been able to find any reference to the book in the family history of the Smythies (Roscoe 1973: 246).

Roscoe, Sydney, John Newbery and his Successors, 1740-1814: A Bibliography, Wormsley, Herts., 1973