Adam Smith Needs a Paper Clip

The pin factory, re-examined


Adam Smith famously used a pin factory to illustrate the advantages of specialization, choosing this "very trifling manufacture" because the different tasks were performed under one roof: "One man draws out the wire, another straights it, a third cuts it, a fourth points it, a fifth grinds it at the top for receiving the head; to make the head requires two or three distinct operations; to put it on, is a peculiar business, to whiten the pins is another; it is even a trade by itself to put them into the paper; and the important business of making a pin is, in this manner, divided into about eighteen distinct operations, which, in some manufactories, are all performed by distinct hands, though in others the same man will sometimes perform two or three of them."

By improving workers' skills and encouraging purpose-built machinery, the division of labor leads to miraculous productivity gains. Even a small and ill-equipped manufacturer, Smith wrote in The Wealth of Nations, could boost each worker's output from a handful of pins a day to nearly 5,000.

In the early 19th century, that number jumped an order of magnitude with the introduction of American inventor John Howe's pin-making machine. It was "one of the marvels of the age, reported on in every major journal and encyclopedia of the time," writes historian of technology Steven Lubar. In 1839, the Howe factory had three machines making 24,000 pins a day—and the inventor was clamoring for pin tariffs to offset the nearly 25 percent tax that pin makers had to pay on imported brass wire, a reminder that punitive tariffs hurt domestic manufacturers as well as consumers.

"Considering the great quantity and value of pins used in this country—and their importance as an article of general use, and convenience, if not of necessity," Howe wrote, "it would seem reasonable that encouragement should be given to an attempt to manufacture them; or at least that no obstacle arising out of the past legislation of our government, should be allowed to remain in the way of such an undertaking."

So what happened to all those pins?

Nowadays, we think of straight pins as sewing supplies. But they weren't always a specialty product. In Smith's time and for a century after, pins were a multipurpose fastening technology. Straight pins functioned as buttons, snaps, hooks and eyes, safety pins, zippers, and Velcro. They closed ladies' bodices, secured men's neckerchiefs, and held on babies' diapers. A prudent 19th century woman always kept a supply at hand, leading a Chicago Tribune writer to opine that the practice encouraged poor workmanship in women's clothes: "The greatest scorner of woman is the maker of the readymade, who would not dare to sew on masculine buttons with but a single thread, yet will be content to give the feminine hook and eye but a promise of fixedness, trusting to the pin to do the rest."

Most significantly, pins fastened paper. Before Scotch tape or command-v, authors including Jane Austen used them to cut and paste manuscript revisions. The Bodleian Library in Oxford maintains an inventory of "dated and datable pins" removed from manuscripts going as far back as 1617.

Pin sales grew along with record-keeping and bureaucracy—the unfairly derided systems necessary to operate an enterprise of any scale. "The expanded market for pins came from expanded uses in business and administrative record-keeping, as well as in clothing," says economic historian Beverly Lemire. Before paper clips or staples, pins gave businesses an inexpensive, unobtrusive way to keep pieces of paper together. Compared to ribbons or cords that required holes or sealing wax, they marked a major advance.

"My guess would be that the expansion of great trading companies—like the East India Company—as well as the multiplication of shops and shopkeepers were a big part of the demand for pins," Lemire says. "Bank pins," as they were called in the trade, allowed organizations of all sizes to keep together orders and invoices, letters and replies. They were an essential office supply.

In 1895, the DeLong Hook & Eye Company, better known for its sewing notions, effectively used direct mail to add office customers to its traditional base. One of its sales letters paints a picture of the role of pins in office life, describing a bookkeeper who tried to stick a "pin through some papers. He pushed and pushed and pushed, biting his lips as he pushed. The pin finally did a flip-flop and landed in his fingers. He said things that caused the demure little girl at the next desk to look up with a start."

The letter then pulled back to show the bigger picture: "This very thing happens in lots and lots of offices every day. And—pins with bent points, blunt points, rusty points and no points at all are at the bottom of the trouble." The solution, of course, was to buy DeLong's rust-proof brass bank pins, with their "long, tapering points and short, sharp stickers." The company enclosed a sample.

But a better solution was on its way. In 1899, an inventor in the pin-making capital of Waterbury, Connecticut, patented a "machine for making paper clips." William Middlebrook's patent application, observed Henry Petroski in The Evolution of Useful Things, "showed a perfectly proportioned Gem."

It was that paper clip design that conquered the office and consigned pins to their current home in the sewing basket.

NEXT: Brickbat: Eat This

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  1. Did somebody disrupt Fist?

    1. It looks like you’re trying to type a firstie. Would you like some help?

      1. Quite lame. Almost a cry for help.

        1. DO YOU SERIOUSLY NOT GET THE REFERENCE? Did you see what the article is about? Sometimes I wonder why I bother with you people.

          1. Microsoft Office.

            Yeah I got it.

  2. This is like the second-worst libertarian gossip site ever.

    1. Deliberately Stupid: One man’s journey through the death of his own ego by DanO.

      1. Somebody haz a sad.

        1. Retarded Repartee: One man’s attempt to win friends and influence people by unabashedly refusing to use his brain to comment by DanO.

    2. I would rather view any Libertarian-ish website about stories about free market and innovation than any socialist rags like WaPo, Ars Technical, Chicago Tribune, etc.

      1. Oh how “socialism” has been cheapened over the years to define anything libertarians don’t like.

        1. You would be right, but there’s no cheapening. Libertarians like liberty. Socialists are suspicious of it. Therefore, anything the socialists do that is consistent with that suspicion will be a thing we libertarians won’t like.

          See? You’re learning.

        2. Socialism being the controlling the means of production and the much of the media is for the government doing that. No cheapening there, you socialist loving slavers just keep trying.

        3. Since socialism is the height of idiocy, it is naturally anathema to the logical intelligent person’s strategy and philosophy.

          Hence the informed and relevant discussions that occur on the few free market websites out there.

          Usually, the likes of a DanO typically associate free markets with cronyist politicians and protectionist companies thus encapsulating and, as always, displaying the ignorance of anyone who in any way condemns anything about capitalism for the want of the knowledge to understand that everything else is simply a version of socialism or Marxists thought. One works, is proven to work, and the other has never worked, will never work, and is proven time and time again to result in utter misery and usually death and starvation ultimately.

        4. At least in recent years, self-identified socialists seem to be doing most of that work themselves. Didn’t we keep hearing from the Bern-victims that fire departments and roads and everything are all examples of socialism in action, so we should all love socialism?

          1. Well the roads in third world countries are really good quality.

            1. The ones the Chinese have built in Africa are. And they are socialists. So there you go.

        5. Oh how “socialism” has been cheapened over the years to define anything libertarians don’t like.

          The free market at work, bitch. Love it or die.

      2. “I would rather view any Libertarian-ish website about stories about free market and innovation than any socialist rags like WaPo, Ars Technical, Chicago Tribune, etc.”

        Ars Technica always leaned left, but they went full bore SJW years ago. 10 years ago they were a decent tech site with a Leftward bent. Conde Naste bought them in 2008. That may or may not have something to do with the decline in quality and objectivity. Now, they are a Nerdy HuffPost.

        Check out this lovely post:

        The post: “this presidential race is making it very apparent that ars is not only biased but its encouraging these sorts of people to come here and be stupid together. discuss.”

        The moderator writes the following:

        “snarfbot, feel free to take your opinion to the Election Thread.

        But if you do, and you post it like this one here, you’ll be warned about trolling and abuse.”

        Dissenting opinions will not be tolerated on Ars Technica.

  3. And yet, the paper clip was “allowed” to be. No thought at all for the poor pin makers who lost their jobs as the pin market collapsed. Although, if a business tried to use pins today, they would be shut down by OSHA for use of such harmful and dangerous items.
    Interestingly enough, when I worked on contract at a major insurance company in 1972, they were still using pins to hold together all the papers involved in processing an application. And had rules requiring that papers be at least two inches from the edge of a desk to prevent an application being lost if it fell to the floor.

    1. I worked for DoD in the early 80s. Not sure if it was just them all all the Fed Govt, but as a result of some bright idea to save paper (literally!) and reduce cost, we were using paper that was 8 X 11 instead of 8.5 X 11. Of course Xerox paper was still standard, so whenever we made copies back in those primitive times, there was a dark gray stripe on the right hand side of the document.

    2. A tailoring business uses pins.

  4. Some uber cool specialization……..


  5. When do we get to learn about the stapler?

  6. There is virtually no chance that the silent hand, division of labor, profit motive, creative destruction, nor any part of this reality will be taught in American public schools nor in private schools.

    Nor is there any chance that your average leftists, Marxists, enviro-whacko, sjw could ever grasp this.

    And since almost all teachers are all of the above, even little hope to be held out.

    1. “And since almost all teachers are all of the above, even little hope to be held out.”

      You could teach the kids yourself, for free.

      1. You could teach the kids yourself, for free.

        Also, I hear rumor that some truths are self-evident.

    2. Well don’t look to the American corporation to teach this either. If they were interested, they’d structure some element of apprenticeship or similar so that their employees understand this. They don’t do this. American companies are easily the worst in the world at just using credentialism for hiring decisions and thus defaulting to and freeriding off whatever schools choose to provide. And in an information vacuum, wth else are schools going to do?

      A prescient article from 30 years ago in the Atlantic about this – http://theatln.tc/2nJg1PC . The only thing that has really gotten even more entrenched since then is that the decision-makers of American corporations are now emphatically globalist. They overtly don’t give a shit anymore about what American schools teach since they can now freeride off what schools in other countries teach. So even more of an information and decision-making vacuum now.

      1. You can’t really test applicants anymore. You risk disparate impact.

        1. That’s certainly a convenient excuse but credentialism itself has a disparate impact too.

          1. Though it’s one that most everyone has agreed to wink at for decades, though the Democrats have sought to clean up that disparity by greasing admissions with subsidized loans for all, and potentially upping the ante soon with “free college for all”. What sort of credentialism might fill the gap thereafter remains uncertain — perhaps more privately provided ones, like Microsoft Certification?

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