SEWING NOTIONS AND TOOLS: PART IV

Note: This article is Part 4 in our series of 5 articles on Sewing Notions and Tools. To read the other articles in the series click here.

As branding and advertising evolved, almost all aspects of sewing notions could be converted to an advertisement: thimbles, needle books, and pincushions. This set of sewing needle booklets sold for a little over $18 in 2013.

Prior to the 1880s, flour was just flour, and oatmeal was just oatmeal until oatmeal got a label and it became “Quaker Oats.”  This is so common to us now that we don’t even realize it, but innovations in printing and advertising revolutionized life in the 20th century.  Right down to the sewing box.

As branding and advertising evolved, almost all aspects of sewing notions could be converted to an advertisement: thimbles, needle books, and pincushions.   All these bore names of products or companies that sought out female clients.

Until the 1920s, women were not seen as worthy targets of marketing.  Those who did make money were likely to turn most of their money over to their family, and they earned half the rate of working men.  Later, as the economy stabilized, that thinking shifted and more marketing messages were addressed specifically to women. 

The message broadcast to the American woman was to stay home and be the best homemaker possible.  Part of being a homemaker was being in charge of the family budget and making purchases.   At that point, women were statistically purchasing 85% of products for her family, even if they purchased things they didn’t use, such as their husband’s razor or children’s toys. 

Sewing notions became the perfect place to get the attention of the lady of the house. These pin holders advertising Prudential Insurance sold for $24.99 in 2013.

In the early 20th century, marketers used flyers, magazine ads, newspaper ads, and direct mail to get to buyers.  If you want a consumer to remember your product, put your brand name where they will frequently see it.  Women were the primary users of sewing notions, and notions became the perfect place to get the attention of the lady of the house.

Ephemera was defined by Maurice Rickards as “minor transient documents of everyday life.”  Rickards was the founder of The Ephemera Society and The Foundation for Ephemera Studies at the University of Reeding.  The advertising ephemera discussed here was largely mass produced and not expected to last.

Pieces of ephemera were created to catch the consumer’s eye for the small window of time when it was used and before it was broken, ripped, or discarded.  The very fact that the items weren’t meant to last is the basis of these items’ current collectability. Today, as printed materials are replaced with digital messages, we see a decline in the production of this type of ephemera.  A store may offer a shopper a text coupon on their next purchase, rather than a needle book in thanks for their purchase.

Many promotional thimbles were made of inferior material, specifically aluminum.  Aluminum was soft enough to print on but did not age well.  For nicer quality items, a person could collect multiple labels from a product and in turn, they received some special notion or tool.  This was true of the Lipton Tea Company who provided a silver thimble in exchange for purchasing a certain quantity of tea. 

Hudson Soap made lovely aluminum and brass mending kits that prominently advertised their name in the early 20th century.  A thimble caps the top of the kit that contains two bobbins of thread and a needle.

Hudson Soap made lovely aluminum and brass mending kits that prominently advertised their name in the early 20th century. This promotional kit made for Hudson’s Soap sold for $26.82 in 2014.

Edwin Holmes notes in his book Thimbles that the use of plastic advertising thimbles was largely confined to North America.  These plastic pieces were also not very durable but they were versatile. The promotional thimble was used to advertise banks, grocery stores, yeast, as well as political campaigns.

A thimble promoting Richard Nixon for U.S. Senate, California, 1950 sold for $18.95 in 2018.

Advertising on sewing notions extended to the manufacturing of souvenirs.  The Smithsonian Air and Space Museum has a needle book from 1927 commemorating Charles “Lucky” Lindbergh’s non-stop flight from New York to Paris.  Items like this allowed the owner to participate in the event in this small way.

This is a similar needle book to the one held at the Smithsonian:

This Lucky needle book from the late 1920’s honoring the Spirit of St. Louis flight sold for $14 in 2011.

Porcelain thimbles are available and collected all over the world. These non-functional relatives of the sewing box variety trace their beginning to spa souvenirs from spa resort towns around the world. These items exist as both a souvenir for the visitor and as an advertisement for their friends.  These items were not limited to sewing notions and tools, but this style of advertising went well with small sewing boxes, needle holders, pin cushions, et cetera. They were also aspirational marketing tools – the life one wanted to have, the places one wanted to visit.

While none of these items may make you rich, they have a certain beauty, and some have the tenacity to survive long after their life expectancy.


Megan Mahn Miller is an auctioneer and appraiser specializing in Rock ‘n Roll and Hollywood memorabilia, and other hard-to-value items.  Her company, Mahn Miller Collective, Inc. can assist you with solving your personal property problems. Visit www.mahnmiller.com for more information.

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