Silver Bodkin

Project details

  • Object number – 873-JR
  • Material – Silver
  • Place of Origin – Likely England
  • Date – 17th century
  • Context – James Fort plowzone
  • Location – Archaearium
  • Category – Dress & Personal

This needle-like and incomplete tool once had a long eye in its shaft so women could draw lacing or cord through their corsets, bodices, and other clothing. Lacing bodkins were popular in England and the Netherlands. A few have been found on 17th-century archaeological sites in Virginia, Maryland, New York, and Massachusetts. Some of these have been personalized with the names or initials of their owners, providing a rare glimpse of women in colonial society.

Most of the personalized archaeological examples seem to have been inscribed after purchase. This silver bodkin initialed E + S may have belonged to Elizabeth Southey. She arrived on The Southampton in 1623 with her husband Henry (a “Somersetshire gentleman”), her 6 children, and 10 servants. Within a year her husband and all but one of her children were dead. She moved onto property owned by Mr. Buck, the second minister sent by the Virginia Company.

Women often placed bodkins in their hair to keep them close at hand. This led to a purely decorative type of bodkin that does not include the eye but often has a small jewel hanging off the end. Both bodkins excavated from the James Fort site thus far likely served as headpins. Dutch inventories and paintings illustrate that the headpin, which was distinct from a hairpin, was a fashionable clothing accessory in the Netherlands between c.1610 and 1630. The headpin was worn in combination with a raised brim cap decorated on the edge in the form of a little crown. The pin or bodkin was pushed through the pulled-back front hair and secured under the cap.

Some lacing bodkins ended in a tiny spoon for extracting earwax, an inexpensive alternative to beeswax for lubricating fibers.