While collecting thimbles became popular in the mid 1800 as a result of the special thimbles that were made for the Great Exhibition held in the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, London, the earliest known thimble was Roman and found at Pompeii. Made of bronze, it has been dated to the first century AD. A Roman thimble was also found at Verulamium, in the UK. and can be seen in the museum there.
The first thimble made in England was in 1695 by a Dutch metal worker named Lofting. It was called the ” thumb-bell,” because it was worn on the thumb when in use, and shapped like a bell. The shape eventually changed, but the name, softened into thimble, still remains.
Thimbles are usually made from metal, leather, rubber, wood, glass, or china. Early thimbles were sometimes made from whale bone, horn, or ivory. Advanced thimblemakers enhanced thimbles with semi-precious stones to decorating the apex or along the outer rim. Thimble artists would also utilize enameling.
Silver thimbles in a variety of styles and decorations date from the 17th century. They invariably feature waffle-like indentations and chevroned strapwork, and are often found without rims. Decorative circular knurlings gradually replaced square-shaped indentations as the century progressed. English thimbles from the mid 17th century were tall and cylindrical and usually made in two parts.
Porcelain thimbles, such as those made by the Meissen factory in Saxony, were never intended for practical work although many thought them ideal for sewing delicate fabrics such as silk. As with tortoiseshell and mother-of-pearl they were less likely to snag the fine threads. Made specifically as extremely beautiful gifts arid now financially beyond the reach of the majority of collectors, few Meissen thimbles exist outside museums and top private collections. Their distinctive rounded form is enhanced by exquisitely detailed and delicate landscapes, seascapes, birds, flowers and romantically portrayed figures, and they have an unrivalled quality and charm.
Fine examples of English porcelain thimbles were first manufactured in the early 1800s by Royal Worcester, Coalport, Spode and Wedgwood, although possibly the richest period for such items is from about 1885 to 1910. This was when thimble production at Royal Worcester in particular was at its height. Although the firm’s early thimbles are seldom marked, they can be identified by their highly translucent bodies, elaborate gilding and detailed brushwork. Signatures of qualified artists like William Powell, who hand painted a series of British birds for Royal Worcester, only began to appear after 1900. Wedgwood Jasper thimbles were also being made in the first half of the 20th century and by exactly the same methods as they were 150 years earlier.
Originally, thimbles were used solely for pushing a needle through fabric or leather as it was being sewn. However they have since gained many other uses and mythologies. In the 1800s they were used to measure spirits (hence the phrase “just a thimbleful”). Women of the night used them in the practice of thimble-knocking where they would tap on a window to announce their presence. Thimble-knocking also refers to the practice of Victorian schoolmistresses who would tap on the heads of unruly pupils with dames thimbles. Thimbles have also been used as love-tokens and to commemorate important events. A miniature thimble is one of the tokens in the game of Monopoly.
Before the 18th century the small dimples on the outside of a thimble were made by hand punching, but in the middle of that century, a machine was invented to do the job. Another consequence of the mechanisation of thimble production is that the shape and the thickness of the metal changed. Early thimbles tend to be quite thick and to have a pronounced dome on the top. The metal on later ones is thinner and the top is flatter.
In the 19th century many thimbles were made from silver. Because this is a soft metal, it is easily pierced by a steel needle. Charles Horner solved the problem by using a steel core covered inside and out by silver. The result was still as pretty as a traditional silver thimble but more practical and durable. He called his thimble the Dorcas and these are now popular with collectors.
Early American thimbles made of whale bone or tooth featuring miniature scrimshaw designs are considered valuable collectibles. Such rare thimbles are prominently featured in a number of New England Whaling Museums.
During the First World War silver thimbles were collected from “those who had nothing to give” by the British government and melted down to buy hospital equipment. In the 1930s and 40s red-topped thimbles were used for advertising. Leaving a sandalwood thimble in a fabric stores helps to keep moths away.
source The Golden Fingers