Curio Vol 2 | Issue 4

Small, ornate, functional and beautiful; the fibula is the ancient precursor to both the modern safety pin and brooch, with the primary purpose use to fasten clothing. In ancient eras where flowing garments such as cloaks, robes and dresses were typically less ‘structured’, fibulae were an important accessory that ensured outfits were secured to one’s body.

Whilst the earliest prototypes of fibulae were spartan and minimal, hundreds of designs and families of fibulae have evolved, influenced by the branches of geography and culture. Some of these eschew pure functionality for adornment with jewels, precious stones and materials of significant value. In these cases, fibulae often adopted symbolic capital and identifiers, be it military rank, occupation, or relationship status.

What remains the same with nearly all fibulae is the structure and resemblance to the human fibula bone of the same name.

Four main components make up the fibulae. These are the body, pin, spring and hinge. The body can either be referred to as a ‘bow’ or ‘plate’, and is shape-specific in how it is referred to. A bow body is typically thin, arched and long, whilst plate bodies are flatter and wider. The body is often the part of the fibulae which bears the most scope for ornamentation.

Pins were either a continuation of the body (i.e. one solid piece of material) or a separate piece that was attached by a process of welding. The spring and hinge are sometimes interchangeable; but are the coiled tension point that allows the body and the pin to meet and secure fabric to its wearer.

During the Bronze Age, fibulae underwent several variants and design directions. When the body and the pin were parallel, it was referred to as a ‘violin bow’ design. These were introduced as early as 14th Century BC, in the ancient Greek region of Peloponnese by the Mycenaeans. Bodies became more arched in the second major design of Bronze age fibula, and later, the the third major design saw the body incorporate springs.

The Iron Age marked a point in time when fibulae started to move beyond its utilitarian heritage to incorporate more geometric shapes and zoomorphic references of birds, horses and wolves (to name a few).

But it wasn’t until the spread of the Roman Empire in 1st Century AD where the number of designs and shapes truly proliferated throughout Europe and the Near East.

Much of this boom was attributed to the technology found in Roman Empire workshops, enabling more complex crafting. For the next few centuries, the fibulae moved from being thin, narrow and light to more defined, badge-like and ultimately resembling brooches pinned to clothes.

The contemporary safety pin is the modern manifestation of the original fibula, and designed by an American mechanic by the name of Walter Hunt in 1849. The main difference between the safety pin is that there is not really a bow or plate body involved — rather, the pin and coiled hinge is one piece of metal, and is held by the rounded clasp head.

Hunt was truly inspired by commercial means with the safety pin. He owed his friend $15, and thought the best way to repay this debt was to literally make something new.

Using an 8-inch piece of brass wire to make the pin, Hunt patented it (U.S patent #6,281) on April 10, 1849. He sold the patent to W.R Grace and Company for $400 that year and paid his friend the money he owed.

Of course, W.R Grace and company would make millions and millions of dollars from this humble invention …

While safety pins are not really part of one’s fashion any more, (unless you were a punk rocker in the 70’s or it’s holding up a very precarious element of a women’s dress) its common use is of course to fasten fabric together; though instead of cloaks and robes, it would more typically be found in diapers/nappies for babies.

Brooches and safety pins remain as common parts of our everyday lives. But don’t forget that the fibula came first.

Curio is released weekly on Mondays. Words and Illustrations by Rob Lee.