Occupational hazard

Here’s a striking report from The London Medical and Surgical Journal, originally published in March 1837. The headline is straightforward enough:

pin swallowing

Two remarkable cases of this kind I have had an opportunity of seeing weekly, for twelve months. The first occurred at Manchester; the second was in St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, under the auspices of Mr. — , and both individuals belonged to that class of society called manteaux-makers.

A manteau-maker, according to the OED, was a ‘maker of women’s robes; a dressmaker.’

All the ladies engaged in this avocation carry about them an abundant supply of pins, which for the most part are folded up in a piece of blue paper, which is carefully deposited “in the bosom!” and here they inoffensively remain, ready for use at a moment’s warning.

In 1837 the allusion to a ‘bosom’ apparently merited an exclamation mark. These dressmakers were stuffing the pins down their décolletage – two hundred years later, a lack of pockets still forces many women to stash mobile phones or money in the same place.

When a dress is to be pinned on, a curtain pinned up, or any other operation of this kind to be performed, the lady takes from her bosom the packet, and deliberately puts a pinch of pins in her mouth, this organ serving as a temporary kind of pin-case until the business is over.

And one fraught with danger, as it transpires.

The lady of St. Bartholomew’s had a packet of pins in her left bosom, and was quietly walking along Holborn, when a rude drunken beast, belonging to the class of society called coal heavers, rushed violently against her, and with such force as to drive the contents of the package into the left bosom.


a good deal of haemorrhage immediately set in, a professional gentleman removed a few of the pins, but was obliged to leave the greater quantity in the organ, they had entered so deeply.

A few months later she was admitted to hospital. On examining her the doctors found a scar on the woman’s left nipple, with three or four more on her upper arm and a similar number on her left side and leg.

During her stay in the hospital, whenever a pin was about coming to the surface, a slight degree of redness of the integuments always preceded, and pain was felt in the spot, particularly upon handling it; with the greatest certainty of finding a pin, an incision would then be made, and the pin found four or five lines from the surface, which was readily removed with a forceps.

‘Integuments’ is a rather vague anatomical term meaning simply ‘flesh’. The pins had worked their way from the breast to various different parts of the body.

Before she left the hospital as many as twenty pins had been altogether removed, and that which was last removed, invariably made its appearance at a greater distance from the seat of the injury than the one which preceded it. Thus the last pins removed were from the dorsum of the left thumb, and the anterior part of the left ankle.

An impressive distance for a pin to have travelled inside the body! There was one curious feature: the pins appeared exclusively on the left side of her body.

The second case is still more wince-inducing:

In the other case the individual was pinning up some bed curtains previous to finishing them, and this operation requiring more hands than one pair, some of the servants volunteered their services, and amongst the rest a smart dapper footman.

You may be wondering why his physical appearance is relevant. I certainly did.

This gentleman’s attention being more directed to the shape and figure of the principal, who was standing on a high stool with her mouth full of pins, than to any use he was present for, gently commenced paying his devoirs by giving a portion of her gluteous maximus (which was in the most inviting position for such an operation) a smart embrace between the finger and thumb of his right hand.

A masterpiece of Victorian circumlocution. Translated: he pinched her bottom. Despite the use of the word ‘inviting’, it is quite clear that this assault was neither expected nor welcome.

She started, her foot slipped, her ankle was strained, but, what was of more serious consequence, she swallowed the pins!

Arggggh. Go directly to hospital.  Do not pass ‘Go’.

The poor girl suffered great pain and fright—a medical man was immediately sent for, who removed as many pins as he could from the bag of the pharynx.

The ‘bag of the pharynx’ is an archaic term for the area of the throat behind the mouth and above the opening  of the oesophagus.

She was admitted into hospital. Several pins in addition were brought away; and she left, in about two months, in the full conviction that at least two dozen pins were distributed in various parts of her body.

She was probably quite correct.

For a year afterwards she was a constant visitor at hospital, to have pins removed from various parts of her body. Unlike the first case, the pins followed no regular boundary, which is to be accounted for by their entering the bag of the pharynx in every direction.


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