What Was ‘Pin Money’?
by Miranda Popkey
In 1987, New York Magazine ran a profile of Roger Straus, publisher of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. The house, then as now, was known for the quality of its list (FSG authors had at that point racked up twenty Nobel Prizes — eighteen for literature and two for peace — twelve National Book Awards, and ten Pulitzers); the care — editorial and otherwise — it devoted to its authors (Susan Sontag, Madeleine L’Engle, Carlos Fuentes, and John McPhee all gave New York admiring quotes); and — perhaps especially — for its thrift.
In the fifties, Robert Gottlieb notes in a New Yorker review of Hothouse, Boris Kachka’s 2013 chronicle of the company’s history, “the martinet supplies manager made the out-of-town salesmen turn over all their stolen hotel soap for use in the company bathrooms.” Both Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Scott Turrow accepted underbids from FSG, for August 1914 and Presumed Innocent, respectively. In the New York profile, an editorial assistant, Tamara Glenny, reports earning $125 a week between 1979 and 1981; that’s $326.06 a week, or just under $17,000 a year, adjusted for inflation. “Roger had an old-world attitude,” another “onetime employee” explains. “He assumed that Mummy was taking care of you. Your salary was pin money.”
I first heard the term “pin money” soon after I arrived in New York. I was working at FSG at the time; perhaps this is why I understood the phrase instinctively. Mummy wasn’t taking care of me (nor, to be fair, was I making $17,000 a year), but she was, sometimes, transferring $500 into my bank account at the end of the month so that I could make rent; I’d transfer the money right back as soon as I got my next paycheck. I’m not sure I could otherwise have made ends meet.
“Pin money” was originally given to a woman not by her employer, but by her husband — though certainly, until rather recently, a man was, to his spouse, more boss than partner. And it was, at least at first, designated for the purchase of pins. In fourteenth century England, pins were so expensive (“the hoi-polloi used sharpened thorns to hold their hats in place and keep their garments together”) and so scarce, that Parliament passed a law making it illegal to sell them except on the first two days of the year. “It was then that the court ladies and city dames flocked to the depots to buy them, having been first provided with money by their husbands.” In a will registered in York in 1542, one finds a benevolent father leaving to his “said doughter Margarett my lease of the parsonadge of Kirkdall Churche . . . to by her pynnes withal.”
The description of the ladies and the dames, and of their flocking, originally appeared in Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (1870), but the anecdote is confirmed by the cheerfully skeptical Evan Morris (“Brewer had an unfortunate tendency to repeat fables,” Morris chides, “but in this case he was on solid ground”). Morris wrote the internationally syndicated newspaper column “Words, Wit and Wisdom,” and maintained the website word-detective.com, until February of this year. (As the site’s landing page explains, Morris’s multiple sclerosis and stage-four cancer have recently forced him to suspend his work.)
By the sixteenth century, per Morris, “husbands were expected to give their wives an allowance (referred to as ‘pin money’), usually a substantial amount, with which to buy clothing and manage the household. The amount and terms of the ‘pin money’ were often written into the marriage contract.” Pin money could also be awarded to the wife if the husband died or if the couple separated — serving “as a sort of safety net at a time when women had few legal rights.” Legal rights, however, that were linked inextricably, first, to a woman’s husband, and, second, to her duties as a wife.
In 1834, after the Duchess of Norfolk’s death, her representatives sued her husband’s estate (he had died in 1816) for thirty-three years of unpaid pin money. The Duchess had been declared “a lunatic” in 1782, and between that pronouncement and the Duke’s death, while the Duke had continued to maintain “her according to her station, and [pay] all her bills,” he had not, it seems (the case is rather hard to parse), paid out her pin money. In his finding against the Duchess’s representatives, the Lord Chancellor clarified the purpose of pin money. “It is to meet her personal expenses, and to deck her person suitably to her husband’s dignity, that is, suitably to the rank and station of his wife. It is a fund which she may be made to spend during the coverture by the intercession and advice, and at the insistence of her husband. I will not go so far as to say, because it is not necessary for the purposes of this argument, that he might hold back her pin-money if she did not attire herself in a becoming way. I should not be afraid, however, of stretching the proposition to that extent.” The italics are all in the original.
Morris notes that while “pin money . . . originally meant a hefty chunk of change . . . with the dramatic fall in the price of pins,” the term became “synonymous with ‘a trivial amount of money’ or ‘petty cash.’” He’s certainly correct. But something of the term’s modern connotations seems entirely appropriate to its historical meaning. Pin money — however much of it you have — is extra, left over, non-essential. It’s female money, and a woman is meant to buy decorative, female things with it.
I did not — that I recall — spend any of my FSG salary on pins. (Nor, I should say, did I hold my garments together with sharpened thorns.) But, at least at first, I did scrimp and save to buy silken shirts and shoes with improbable heels and complicated laces so that I might look like I belonged in the literary world my job had granted me access to; like I might be the kind of person who had enough money she could casually fritter away some portion of it. Eventually, I gave up the façade. My last years at FSG, my uniform was a series of enormous sweaters.
Miranda Popkey is a writer based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She still does not own any pins.