13 September 2011

Thumbtacks: a Blog Off post

Every two weeks, the blogosphere comes alive with something called a Blog Off. A Blog Off is an event where bloggers of every stripe weigh in on the same topic on the same day. The topic for this round of the Blog Off is "Thumbtacks"


To preface this one a bit, the brilliant Rufus Dogg was having a conversation with the novelist and essayist Jane Devin about blog topics. Jane said, “I think some bloggers could write about thumbtacks and their ‘community’ will be pleased.”

Rufus took that as some sort of thrown gauntlet and here we are a week later with "thumbtacks" as a Blog Off topic. While I can't guarantee that'll I'll please my community with this one, I'm sure going to give it a try.

I'm a history nerd of the highest order and when I was thinking about all of this over the weekend it hit me. I'm going to write about the invention of the thumbtack.

Who knew that something so mundane as a thumbtack could have such a controversial history. For starters, three inventors in three separate countries claimed the thumbtack as his own, all three of them around the turn of the last century. Of the three, Mick Clay's is the most pathetic so that's the one I'm going to believe is the true inventor of the thumbtack. All invention involved suffering and disappointment, right?

Mick Clay is a man lost to the mists of history. His lasting contribution to civilization however was something the English call a drawing pin. In 1903, in Barnsley, South Yorkshire; Mick Clay invented a little device that drafters could use to fasten their drawings to their drawing tables. Hence the English term drawing pin. In the US, they were called thumbtacks, but their purpose and original use was the same.

Before getting a patent on his idea, Clay sold the idea to Otto Lindstedt. Lindstedt was a wealthy business man who was granted a patent for Clay's idea in 1904.

From all accounts, Lindstedt went on to even further fame and fortune with the proceeds from Clay's idea. Lindstedt was the toast of the Continent, feted by royalty and commoner alike. Clay disappeared and even though I ca'tn verify it, I see him dying in obscurity in some Dickensian workhouse somewhere while shaking his fist at Lindstedt and being ignored by his fellows. Poor guy.

Actual metal thumbtacks, or drawing pins depending on your side of the Atlantic have all been replaced by something that's technically a map pin.

Thumbtacks have an annoying habit of landing pin side up when dropped, something I remember with searing clarity from my childhood. Stepping on a tack in bare feet is a pain like none other, let me tell you.

The shape of a map pin makes such a deadly landing impossible and their widespread use have made workplaces and households infinitely safer places.

However, I rather like the idea of office supplies that fight back. A little hazard now and again is good for the soul. I say we bring back the old metal thumbtack.


As the day goes on, the rest of the participants in today's Blog Off will appear miraculously at the end of this post. Keep checking back and check out everybody's posts. You can follow along in Twitter as well, just look for the hashtag #LetsBlogOff. If you'd like more information about about the Blog Off or if you'd like to see the results of previous Blog Offs, you can find the main website here.


  1. leave it to you for teaching me something about thumbtacks. i've never heard the term "drawing pin" before. now i won't sound like a fool if I'm in Europe and happen to be shopping for thumbtacks. they have such a way of making everything sound so much more elegant, don't they?

  2. What a fascinating history and well researched. Yes, I like the idea of office supplies that fight back too!

  3. "However, I rather like the idea of office supplies that fight back"

    That's my favorite quote.

  4. Why do the British get all the uppity snootarooty names! "Draaawing pins, my dear, are the invention of the century." You can't say "Thuuumbtacks, my dear..." It's just not sophisticated.

  5. I love the uniquely British turn of phrase too Cham, I wonder what Pat (Welshcakes Limoncello) thinks about our US appreciation for their vocabularies.

    Denese, screw shopping for them in Europe, I'm going to start calling them Drawing Pins here.

    Bridget, I'm very proud of that line, I'm glad you like it too.

  6. Paul, I can't wait to ask someone to please hand me a drawing pin! You can almost see the furrowed brow.


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