Germany was the center of production for this object that became a fingers best friend while sewing, a token of love and something Peter Pan has. What is the object? It is a thimble!
30,000 years ago, mammoth hunters used their bones to stitch pearl embroideries onto leather; evidence of which was found in Moscow after mammoth bones were excavated. This was the beginning of the thimble. 2,500 years ago the thimble we know today made its appearance. In the Mediterranean thimbles were made of bronze and by the Roman times were being spread throughout Europe. Up until this point, thimbles were plain but in Nürnberg around 1500 AD thimbles started to have designs, and were made from metal zinc and brass. Around the mid 1500’s thimble makers started to appear and in 1696 Bernhard der Becke from Iserlohn established his own thimble factory. Germany was the primary area for thimble making, but eventually the Swedish, Austrians, French, English and Americans started to produce their own thimbles. To learn more about thimble history and see some examples of thimble design, visit the Fingerhut Museum.
Besides being an object women would own to help with their sewing, thimbles also hold a symbolic meaning. From the 1600’s on, during courtship, a man would give the woman he was courting gifts as tokens of his love. By receiving the gift, it showed the gentleman that she would like to continue the courtship; rejecting the gift would say she wanted to end the courtship. These gifts included handkerchiefs, gloves, jewelry and thimbles. The thimble was a popular gift during these times because it was something that was associated with women; it would help the woman in her domestic duties during her marriage. According to Stephanie Appleton from the History Department at the University of Birmingham, it also symbolized the man’s expectations for his future wife’s duties and the woman’s acceptance of these expectations. In The Life and Death of King John Shakespeare uses the thimble to make a point for the females domestic role in the household. Read the verse here. The story of Peter Pan even mentions a thimble; after Wendy has sewn Peter’s shadow back on she states that she would like to give him a kiss. He holds out his hand and she places a thimble in it. When Peter says he’ll give her a kiss, he drops an acorn into her hand.
Here at the High Plains Museum we have three thimbles. The image on the left is an old style thimble, and the other thimbles are German made. Each was probably used by housewives from Sherman County. Today, thimbles can be elaborately decorated and be quite colorful. While perhaps not used as much for sewing purposes, thimbles have found a new audience. There are many people around the world who collect thimbles and there are several organizations, including the Thimbles Collectors International. From mammoth bones 30,000 years ago to a gift for courtship, the thimble has made a lasting impression on the world. Do you collect thimbles? Please tell us in the comments section below.