Contemporary Standard Safety Pin, US Patent 6281
Written by Pete Oyler
The standard safety pin, US patent 6,281, was designed in 1849 by Walter Hunt and first manufactured by A. Meyers & Sons Corporation in New York City. By all measures, the design is a good one. It makes excellent use of mass manufacturing, it requires minimal material, and its use is both intuitive and versatile. The function of the safety pin is simple: The spring mechanism allows the pin to be opened and closed, while the cap provides protection from an otherwise exposed sharp end. And the intended use of the safety pin is concise—the object is meant to hold things together. In his 1964 text The Nature of Design (which later became The Nature and Aesthetics of Design), David Pye argues that while a designer may design with a specific function or set of functions in mind, an assumption that the resulting object will only be used accordingly would be naive at best. The relationship between improvisation and function within the context of designed objects is an important one: Objects can and do fulfill a multitude of functions—some intended, some not; some utilitarian, some not. Hunt patented the safety pin as a way to pay back a fifteen-dollar debt he owed to a friend. He sold the patent for four hundred dollars to W. R. Grace & Company. While Hunt, a prolific inventor, must have known that the potential uses for the safety pin were innumerable, it would have been impossible for him to anticipate our contemporary applications or the object’s layered symbolisms.
Nearly forty years after Hunt patented the safety pin, the first mass-produced diapers were introduced in the United States, by Maria Allen. These cloth diapers were essentially small squares of fabric that relied on a pin for fastening, and the development of the diaper industry paved the way for a resurgent interest in safety pins. “Diaper pins,” as they became colloquially known in this context, were introduced as a distinct consumer good that improvised on Hunt’s design. The safety cap in particular became ripe for reinterpretation: By the 1970s, blue and pink plastic caps, operating as gender signifiers, commonly replaced the original metal caps and safety caps shaped like animals—such as ducks, pigs, and rabbits—also became common. These adaptations spoke to new advancements in plastics manufacturing and ultimately resulted in a more child-centric aesthetic and market appeal. The evolution of the safety pin’s design in the context of diapering represents an act of care and compassion toward the most vulnerable among us.
While the safety pin was contributing to the evolution of the aesthetics of diapering, it was being used to very different impact in 1970s London. With roots in postwar white, working-class youth movements, the punk subculture emerged in the United Kingdom as a fierce resistance to authority. In his 1979 text Subculture: The Meaning of Style, media theorist Dick Hebdige argued that style was integral to this resistance. An infamous staple of punk fashion (see: the Sex Pistols, the Damned, the Clash, etc.), the safety pin became an iconic symbol of dominant ideological opposition. “Objects borrowed from the most sordid of contexts found a place in the punks’ ensembles: Lavatory chains were draped in graceful arcs across chests encased in plastic bin liners,” Hebdige wrote. “Safety pins were taken out of their domestic ‘utility’ context and worn as gruesome ornaments through the cheek, ear, or lip.” The punk aesthetic “did more than upset the wardrobe. It undermined every relevant discourse.” The safety pin allowed new ways of challenging the status quo, providing visual identification of sociopolitical solidarity while highlighting the idea that the improvised use of objects has the potential to create a unique set of social, emotional, and psychological functions.
Nearly half a century later the safety pin as social signifier has resurfaced, as a powerful—and controversial—symbol of solidarity with minority populations. On June 24, 2016, Britain voted to leave the European Union. The Leave campaign is generally understood to be anti-immigration, fueled by a constituency that believes immigrants to be a cause of economic decline. The dangerous equation of economic anxiety and globalization with immigration that motivated Leave voters resulted in a surge of xenophobic incidents. Just two days after the referendum, the New Arab reported that, according to the National Police Chiefs’ Council, there had been a 57 percent increase in such reported incidents. In response to the vote and the violence, #safetypin emerged on Twitter and US patent 6,281 entered an entirely different social arena. The hashtag went viral, and thousands of civilians posted photos of themselves donning a safety pin as a symbol of solidarity with immigrant populations. The hashtag became a tool for digitally documenting and archiving resistance to the xenophobic overtones of Leave. This new function of the safety pin, to communicate solidarity through an algorithmic medium, would have been unimaginable to Hunt, who died in 1859—nine years before the invention of the typewriter.
In a black swan event on November 9, 2016, Donald J. Trump became the president-elect of the United States. In the foggy aftermath of this unprecedented and vitriolic election cycle and building upon Brexit’s #safetypin, Americans are wearing safety pins as a way to identify themselves as allies, indicating a willingness to provide resources and, in some instances, protection to minorities. Immediately following the election results, abhorrent acts of aggression toward people of color began occurring. The Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization dedicated to social justice and advocacy, reported 867 bias-based attacks within the first ten days of Trump’s election. These include “multiple reports of black children being told to ride in the back of school buses; the words 'Trump Nation' and 'Whites Only' being painted on a church with a large immigrant population; and an elderly gay man being pulled from his car and beaten by an assailant who said the 'president says we can kill all you faggots now.'" As hate crimes continue to occur, many people wear the safety pin as a way to signal rejection of the bigoted overtones that dominated Trump’s campaign.
There has been a significant backlash from the LGBTQ community and people of color, many of whom believe that the symbolism of the safety pin offers a false sense of solidarity. Ijeoma Oluo, editor-at-large of theestablishment.com, criticizes the lack of activism that often accompanies a symbol: “The sight of a pin could well bring a smile to someone in a time of need. But it’s not enough. Not even close. Don’t expect your pin to provide comfort in lieu of action. And don’t expect it to bring actual change. We have real work that has to be done, and I suggest we get started.” This critique demands immediate attention, as white/cisgender allies are being called to mobilize against systemic racism and homophobia in concrete ways.
In the current political climate, it seems more important than ever to take stock of history—understanding the past allows one more easily to understand and act within the present. The safety pin in its present political context is helping to expose very deep wounds in the social fabric, and for many it is also providing a way to signal togetherness. That such a humble object as a safety pin is capable of generating such passionate critique and call to action is evidence of the power that designed objects can have. Since its invention, the safety pin has held innumerable things together. It has come to represent a diverse range of evolutions in social movements, in style, in methods of mass communication, and ultimately in the desire to provide care to the most vulnerable. At present, the safety pin is being used as a way to affirm humanity and the future, and to remind ourselves of and hold ourselves accountable to the ideal that we are, in fact, stronger together.