Ask About Antiques: Collecting Thimbles--A Stitch in Time

Ask About Antiques
Collecting Thimbles--A Stitch in Time

The term for a thimble collector is digitabulist. Thimbles have been one of mankind's most basic tools. It has many more uses than simply pushing a needle through fabric. After World War I they became a popular advertising medium. In the 30s and 40s, red topped thimbles caught people's attention. Early school teachers used "dames thimbles" to enforce discipline when she knocked the unruly student on the top of the head with her thimbled-finger (called thimble knocking). During the 1800s, a thimble was used as a "spirit measure," thus the term "Only a thimbleful." During Word War I, thimbles also became a type of currency. It breaks my heart to relay this story, but in England 350,000 to 400,000 sterling thimbles were donated and melted down in order to buy much needed hospital equipment. In Europe, thimbles are given as confirmation gifts to young ladies as a start for their hope chests. A sandalwood thimble left in the sewing basket will discourage moths.
The simple thimble has its origin as a needle pusher in early civilization; crudely made of stone, bronze, bone or ivory, they were used with crude needles to fasten animal skins together, making protective clothing. Since that time, thimbles have been made of every material known to man...from 14K gold to a real carrot! Many thimbles were given as engagement gifts, with those of sterling or gold most popular. A woman's social status was often illustrated by her thimble: did the woman of the house have free time to do the fine needlework of the day; was she a servant with a common base metal thimble; was she a woman of position and wealth with a gold or silver thimble sometimes adorned with gemstones?
The 19th century became the "golden age" of thimbles when the industrial revolution brought silver and gold thimbles with machine made knurling and die-stamped designs, within the reach of the middle class. Paul Revere, a patriot and master silversmith, made a gold thimble for his daughter, Maria. Today, it is on display at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
For hundreds of years, thimbles have marked historical events. Known as "commemoratives," thimbles have been produced to mark such events as: the meeting of the east and west railroad - known as the Golden Spike thimbles; the witch hunts in Massachusetts brought out the Salem Witch thimble; the Columbian Exposition as well as the Pan-American Exposition had thimbles struck to commemorate their events. And companion sewing and non-sewing pieces were often developed with the same theme. There are even museums dedicated strictly to sewing items in both England and Germany.
During the mid- to late 20th century, thimbles were becoming obsolete but quaint tools of yesteryear. Only during the last 20-30 years has there been any interest in their history or social significance. Are you interested in learning more about thimbles and antique sewing tools? Write to: Thimble Collectors International, 1952 White Feather Lane, Nokomis FL 34275-5315 (please include a self-addressed, stamped envelope).

(ITALICS PLEASE)Budd A. Moore, Ed.D., is a specialist in the valuation of antique and collectable objects of the last 150 years. If you have a question about antiques or collectibles, you can e-mail him at buddm4cnsl@comcast.net