A Guide to Collecting Thimbles
What Is a Thimble?
I first became interested in thimbles upon seeing my mother's extensive collection featuring plant and animal life. They were so simple in terms of design, but so effective as a decorative piece on the wall. Today, I too have a growing thimble collection consisting of models I find in local garage sales and charity shops.
On this page, not only will you find information about thimble collecting, but also about the history, origins, and various uses of thimbles, as well as the materials used to make them.
My Personal Thimble Collection
It all started on a trip to Penzance Cornwall, where I picked up a St. Michael's Mount thimble. It was a nice little remembrance of my visit and, even better, it was easy to pop it in my bag and carry it home. For the most part, it has been inexpensive to pick up a souvenir thimble and I have received many from friends and relatives which has helped to expand my collection. Some thimbles were more expensive than others but they have never put a strain on the purse strings.
Each thimble holds a special memory and it is a joy to look at them from time to time and remember the place and the circumstances around its purchase. I have thimbles from Niagara Falls, Jamaica, Wales, Canada's Wonderland in Toronto, France to name a few, but I also have a special thimble from the Royal Doulton collection, one commemorating the 125th anniversary of the Talyllyn Railway in Wales, one from Beatrix Potter's house, and one from the introduction of pandas at the Assiniboine Zoo.
What Are Thimbles Made Of?
Beyond the traditional brass, other materials may be used to create thimbles, from precious metals to wood to even bone. Among royalty, gold and silver thimbles, as well as thimbles embedded with semi-precious stones were popular. In fact, it is said that Queen Elizabeth I gave a beautiful jeweled thimble to one of her ladies in waiting as a gift.
Bone thimbles, on the other hand, were popular in the Americas. They were mostly made of whalebone or tooth and are some of the most sought-after collectibles today. Very rarely, thimble makers will design thimbles made of diamond, rubies and sapphires. Other possible materials include mother of pearl, cinnabar, agate, marble, china, moonstone, amber or ivory.
Basically, any material you can manipulate can become a beautiful thimble!
Fun Facts About Thimbles
- The first known thimble was created just after the birth of Christ, in 1st century Pompeii, Rome.
- The word 'thimble' is derived from the old English word for 'thumb'.
- A person who collects thimbles as a hobby is called a 'digitabulist'.
- The thimble is one of the eight pieces in the popular board game Monopoly.
What Are Thimbles Used For?
Brass and silver-plated silver thimbles are mostly used for sewing. These thimbles will have either a flat or domed top that may or may not have a hole in it to allow moisture to escape. If the thimble does not have a hole in the top, the tip of your finger will become wrinkly after a long sewing session.
Many years ago, brass and silver-plated thimbles had alternative purposes as well. For instance, prostitutes would use a thimble to knock on the window of a client. Likewise, some headmistresses and teachers would use thimbles to rap the heads of their misbehaving students. These two acts both go under the name of "thimble-knocking." Later on, thimbles were given a fourth use; to measure spirits.
Rubber thimbles, or thimblettes, are primarily used to facilitate leafing through documents or pages of a book. Wearing a rubber thimble also prevents paper cuts.
Thimbles made of precious metals and stones are solely used for decorative purposes. It is popular for companies to create decorative thimbles in china or porcelain to commemorate important events, such as Queen Elizabeth II's Jubilee or the marriage of Prince William and Kate Middleton.
The Dorcas Thimble: A Collector's Favorite
The Dorcas Thimble was the invention of Charles Horner, owner of a jewelery business in the 18th century. After hearing the plight of haggard housewives who were continually pricking their fingers due to the soft nature of pure silver thimbles, he was inspired to create a series of durable steel thimbles called Dorcas Thimbles. These thimbles would not allow needles to pass through, making them much safer to use. Then, to preserve the beauty of these thimbles, he decided to coat them in sterling silver.
My Cambridge Colleges Fenton English Bone China Thimbles
I spent the day at Machynlleth's Wednesday Market today and, as usual, visited the Machynlleth Antiques Emporium. In the past, I have bought a few things for the garden; a birdcage (used for a plant which hangs in my window) and a little cat that holds earrings. Today I discovered six thimbles by Fenton (The Potteries Area) English Bone China depicting six Cambridge University Colleges.
I have included a picture of the six Colleges, plus a photo of the thimbles below:
Clare College - founded in 1326 with an emblem of three chevrons and a cross
Corpus Christi College - founded in 1352 with its pelican and lily flowers
Downing College - founded in 1800 with a depiction of a griffin and eight roses
Pembroke College - founded 1347 showing six small birds or 'martlets' probably swallows or small blackbirds
St. Catherine's College - founded 1473 showing a Catherine wheel on a red background
Trinity Hall - founded 1350, an emblem of a crescent on sable and ermine
Five Reasons to Collect Thimbles:
If you aren't convinced that thimble collecting is for you, have a look at my list of five reasons to collect thimbles. If this list does not sway you, I consider you lost to the thimble-ignorant masses!
- Thimbles exist in all shapes, forms and materials. You can choose to collect thimbles of a given material, of a certain year or decade, or in celebration of a certain event. My mum, for instance, collects thimbles that have images of animals or plants on them.
- Thimbles are relatively inexpensive. The average thimble will cost you around $5. Of course, if you decide to collect rare thimbles, you must be prepared to shell out a little bit more than a simple fiver!
- Thimbles are small and easily portable. You won't have to worry about finding space for them in your house, especially if you hang them on the wall in a thimble display cabinet.
- Thimbles are widely available. You can find them on eBay, at antique shows, garage sales, and about anywhere else you can imagine.
- Thimble collecting can be very relaxing. There is nothing more satisfying than seeing a complete collection of thimbles on your wall, or going on the hunt for that elusive thimble for which you've been searching for years.
Are you curious to know more about the history of thimbles and thimble collecting? If so, Edwin E. Holmes' book, , is the very best place to start. Holmes' book is woven with beautiful photos of every kind of thimble imaginable, from the rare Dorcas thimbles to ancient American thimbles made from bone, to the more common metal thimbles. He also discusses the various manufacturing techniques required to make a long-lasting thimble. For a collector, this book is truly a gem! A History of Thimbles
- BBC - A History of the World - Thimbles
Author Brian Luker compares two thimbles - one, a 14th century thimble he found in his backyard, and the other, a modern day thimble made just after the Second World War.
- Thimble - Little Bits of History
Another historical account of the thimble, told with a specific focus on the brass metallurgists of the Medieval Ages.
- UK Detector Finds Database - Thimbles
An excellent history of the design of thimbles from the 14th century all the way to the present day.