My wife loves thimbles. Not that she sews all that much; in fact, she hardly sews at all. Rather, she finds a thimble to be the ideal souvenir to remember each place we visit. In fact, the wall of our dining room is devoted almost exclusively to a display of souvenir thimbles.
I also love thimbles. Or at least one thimble, the thimble piece in the Monopoly board game. I don’t know why but when I was a kid, I always chose the thimble as my preferred playing piece. I haven’t played in decades, but every time I hear the word thimble, my childhood comes rushing back to me.
To the general mind, the thimble probably has nothing historic or fascinating about it; it is quite mundane. However, it has a history much more fascinating, and its uses are much more exotic than a non-aficionado could possibly imagine. This is why I believe the not-so-lowly thimble deserves a place on the list of what I like to call “extraordinary ordinary things.”
What Is a Thimble?
The Cambridge Dictionary defines a thimble as: “A small cover, usually made of metal or plastic, worn to protect the finger that pushes the needle when sewing.”
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary has a rather more expansive definition:
- A pitted cap or cover worn on the finger to push the needle in sewing.
- A grooved ring of thin metal used to fit in a spliced loop in a rope as protection from chafing.
- A lining (as of metal) for an opening (as in a roof or wall) through which a stovepipe or chimney passes
However, none of these definitions do the thimble justice. They barely scratch the surface of the thimble’s variegated shapes, materials, and applications.
A technical description would be: A small, hard pitted cup worn for protection on the finger that pushes a sewing needle. The shape of the thimble is more like a real finger—flatter on one side and rounded on the other. Its texture helps to keep it securely on the finger. The deep dimples hold the needle and prevent it from slipping off the thimble. Thimbles with a closed top are used primarily by dressmakers; while special thimbles with an opening at the end are used by tailors because they allow the cloth to be more easily manipulated.
“Finger guards” differ from the tailor’s thimble in that they often have a top but are open on one side. Some finger guards are little more than a finger shield attached to a ring to maintain the guard in place.
The Old English word “þȳmel,” the forerunner of “thimble,” is derived from another Old English ‘þūma.”
A Brief History of the Thimble
It might be argued the first thimbles date back about 30,000 years. However, these “thimbles” were essentially conveniently shaped bones and rocks used to help push a needle through leather. There is little evidence to suggest any were specifically fashioned for a purpose, i.e. they were used simply as is.
The earliest evidence of an instrument specifically fashioned for sewing dates back some 2,000 years to the Han Dynasty (206 BCE–202 CE) in ancient China. A single steel needle was found in a tomb from the period. Although no thimble was found, the discovery of the needle strongly suggests the instrument must also have been used at the time. The earliest known actual thimble, in the form of a simple ring, dates back to somewhat later in the Han Dynasty. It was discovered during the Cultural Revolution of the People’s Republic of China (1933–76) in the tomb of a lesser dignitary.
Curiously, neither the Ancient Greeks nor the Ancient Romans seem to have used metal thimbles. It is speculated that maybe leather or cloth finger guards proved to be sufficiently robust for their purposes. So-called Roman thimbles were once found in the collections of museums; however, since their provenance could not be satisfactorily established, many have been removed from displays.
Instruments expressly fashioned for the purpose of sewing (thimbles) were discovered in England dating from the 10th century and were in widespread use by the 14th century. Early centers of thimble production in Europe were those places known for brass-working, such as Nuremberg in the 15th century, then moving to the Netherlands by the 17th century. In these early days, thimbles were made by individuals largely for personal use. Thimble-making slowly expanded into a “cottage industry,” i.e; produced locally by people particularly skilled at making them.
In 1693, John Lofting, a Dutch immigrant to England, established a thimble-making factory in Islington (London), thereby significantly expanding British thimble production. He later moved his factory to Buckinghamshire to take advantage of water to power his factory, thus boosting production to more than two million thimbles a year.
In Lofting’s time, the thimble was commonly called a ”thumb-bell” because it was worn on the thumb and shaped like a bell.
Early thimbles were sometimes made from whalebone, horn, or ivory. In the early years, it was common for thimble-makers to enhance their products with semi-precious stones and to decorate the outer rim. Over the centuries, thimbles have been fashioned from stone, bronze, glass, horn, ivory, leather, mother-of-pearl, silver, whalebone, wood, a number of metal alloys, and porcelain. Porcelain thimbles became particularly popular in the 1840s and 1850s with the advent of the sewing machine by pioneering American inventors Elias Howe and Isaac Singer.
Before the 18th century, the small dimples on the outside of a thimble were made by hand punching. However, in the middle of the 18th century, a machine was invented to do the job. If you find a thimble with an irregular pattern of dimples, it was likely made before the 1850s.
Another consequence of the mechanization of thimble-making was that the shape and the thickness of the metal changed. Early metal thimbles tended to be quite thick and to have a pronounced dome on the top. The metal of later ones became thinner and the top flatter.
In the 19th century, thimbles made of pure silver became popular. However, the silver was found to be too soft a metal and could easily be punctured by most needles. The problem was solved when English jeweler Charles Horner (1837–1893) began creating thimbles with a steel core covered inside and outside with silver. While retaining their esthetic value, these bi-metallic thimbles were also more practical and durable.
Although still prized for their practical use, thimbles also began taking on the status of jewelry or collectibles. Starting in the 16th century, silver thimbles were regarded as an ideal gift for ladies.
Early Meissen porcelain and elaborate, decorated gold thimbles were also given as”keepsakes,” and as such were usually quite unsuitable for sewing.
Other Uses of Thimbles
When hearing the word thimble, most people automatically think of sewing or tailoring. However, the basic thimble has been adapted for numerous other purposes.
Potato pickers may use simple thimbles to protect the ends of their fingers while they sift through the loosened earth in order to find potatoes. Similarly, workers in the tobacco industry protect their fingers with a thimble during the destemming process, which consists of removing all the stems from the tobacco leaves, leaving them ready for further processing.
In the 18th century, women and children worked at splitting straw in order to make hats, baskets, etc. The split straw was first plaited, then sewn. A small hooked tool was used to split the stem of the straw. Because the stem could be very sharp and damaging to the fingers, such workers wore thimbles to protect themselves.
Farm laborers who cut up haystacks frequently suffered from straw fragments being driven under their fingernails. Thus, they sometimes wear leather thimbles when thrusting their hands into haystacks.
Cossack soldiers once wore bands of powder holders on their chests as part of their traditional uniform. The powder holders appear to be closed by thimbles.
While the word thimble may evoke the picture of sewing fabric, people in the medical profession are more likely to think of sewing flesh and bone. This is because thimbles in suitably adapted forms are vital to many forms of surgery.
In 2012 The BMJ, a British medical journal, published a major article that delineated the manifold uses of thimbles in surgery along with a brief historical perspective. Here are some of the highlights from the article.
Editor's note: All these thimble-like instruments are described in the present tense. However, since some of them were invented decades ago, due to technological advances, their use may have significantly declined or have disappeared entirely.
- Cardiac surgery
Patients with severe mitral valve stenosis sometimes need surgery. The mitral valve is a small flap in the heart that prevents blood from flowing the wrong way; stenosis means narrowing. Severe mitral valve stenosis disrupts and damages the heart, which can be corrected by surgery.
When the valve is exposed, it is found that the cusps of the valve are frequently very firmly stuck together. The stuck valve cusps can either be separated by blunt finger force, pushing a finger through the valve and breaking down the adhesions (finger fracture), or sharp dissection. To facilitate this process, the surgeon may wear a thimble on the first finger of their hand. To prevent loss of the thimble in the heart, loops are used to tape it under the surgeon’s glove.
- Ear, nose, and throat (ENT) surgery
Thimble-like finger protectors are used in ENT surgery to prevent accidental biting injury during intra-oral procedures. They can also be used in epileptic patients by staff trying to secure an oral airway during a fit.
- General surgery
In various procedures, the surgeon uses a thimble to avoid cutting an unguarded finger, e.g. draining axillary abscesses following mastectomy and fashioning stomata in colorectal surgery.
Surgeons operating in deep cavities often use the index finger of the non-dominant hand to guide the tip of a needle into the correct position. During this process, the guiding finger may be stuck by the point of the needle. Accidental finger stick injuries may also occur in normal suturing. The advent of HIV infection and the various forms of hepatitis have made such needle or knife stick injuries particularly significant, so not only do surgeons wear two pairs of gloves but some surgeons also wear a simple thimble on the index finger under the glove.
A suitably modified thimble is also used to facilitate knot tying in a deep cavity where there may not be enough room to tie a normal knot.
To facilitate rupturing the membrane, an obstetric thimble may be used. The instrument fits the index finger and is fitted with a sharp point that curves over the free edge of the nail.
- Orthopedic surgery
Fibular bone was once used to stabilize femoral neck fractures. In order to prevent shattering of the graft as it was being hammered into place, a thimble was used over the end to prevent splitting.
Thimble splints may be used to immobilize finger fractures when the fracture is confined to the distal phalanx. A plaster-of-Paris thimble enclosing the whole digit provides adequate immobilization. Aluminum thimbles called “thimble splints” are also used for this purpose.
- Plastic surgery
Plastic surgical procedures on the breast often involve extensive finger dissection to separate the breast tissue from the surrounding structures. A special thimble may be used to facilitate this process.
Thimbles are used in order to fix the testes in the scrotum following surgery for undescended testis. Once the undescended testes have been mobilized and placed in the scrotum, they must be kept in place until healing has taken place; otherwise, they may retract back into the body. Usually, a loop suture is placed in tissue adjoining the testes and brought out through scrotal skin.
- Dental surgery
A pair of specially designed thimbles may be used to facilitate the use of dental floss. The thimbles clamp the floss to the fingers by friction, thus avoiding the need to wrap the floss around the fingertips. Floss is held in a container and fed between the finger and thimble and out through an aperture in the top of the thimble.
Banjo players may wear a thimble on the first finger to achieve a special sound known as “stroke playing” or “thimble playing.” This is a very old technique. According to S.S. Stewarts Banjo and Guitar Journal in 1887, “In playing marches, etc., the entire execution is nearly always done with the thimble; that is, nearly all the notes are struck with the thimble, and the thumb is little used.”
At one time, office clerks used to wear rubber thimbles for sorting papers to facilitate a firm, accurate grip. In the current electronic age, paper storage has been largely replaced by digital storage; so the use of the rubber thimble has essentially disappeared.
Wigmakers who hand made and knotted hairs individually used a wigmaker’s thimble to protect their third finger when sewing the foundation of the wig
Thimbles and Culture
The thimble pops up in numerous aspects of culture, usually only in a minor role. However, in 2017 an event occurred that (at least for me) turned the world upside down.
When the world-renowned board game Monopoly was created in 1935, the thimble was one of the eight original game pieces used to mark a player’s position on the game board. However, trying to make the game more attractive to a younger audience, Hasbro (the company that owns Monopoly) asked fans to vote if they wanted to remove the thimble from the game. Astonishingly (at least to me), they voted “Yes.” So beginning in 2017, the thimble was purged from the lineup.
As I said in the introduction to this essay, when I was a child in the 1950s, I always chose the thimble as my preferred piece to play with. Since then, every time I heard the word thimble, my childhood came running back to me. But alas, no more. I am still trying to recover from the blow.
Of less momentous importance, here are a few other cultural references to the thimble:
- People who collect thimbles are known as “digitabulists.”
- Thimbles were once used to measure out spirits and gunpowder, giving rise to the phrase “just a thimbleful.”
- Sex workers once used thimbles for “thimble-knocking.” This was the practice of knocking 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 thimbles.
- In the Far East, decorated Mandarin thimbles (nail guards) are sometimes worn by dancers. They are cast in silver filigree or heavily enameled, often decorated with semi-precious stones.
- Thimbles are given as gifts in “Peter Pan,” who thinks thimbles are kisses.
- A 9-foot (3-meter) high sculpture of a giant thimble resting on a stack of buttons commemorates the garment district in Toronto, Canada. Most of these thimble makers no longer exist.
- A superstition about thimbles says that if you have three thimbles given to you, you will never get married.
- In the 1992 film “Batman Returns,” Catwoman (played by Michelle Pfeifer) uses thimbles to create the base of her claws.
- The popular comic strip and later TV show “Popeye” was originally called “Thimble Theatre Starring Popeye.”
- The character Elizabeth in the video game BioSchock Infinite uses a thimble to cover her severed little finger.
- Video montages and series of clips are often called “thimble collections.”
- In the 2000 film “Chicken Run,” Nick and Fetcher attempt to sell a couple of thimbles to Ginger as a “quality, handcrafted tea set.”
Quotations About Thimbles
The term “thimble” is almost always related to size, i.e. a tiny measure or amount. This synonymity of thimble with tininess is frequently in quotations using the term. Here are a few of my favorites.
“There is more information in one thimble of reality than can be understood by a galaxy of human brains. It is beyond the human brain to understand the world and its environment, so the brain compensates by creating simplified illusions that act as a replacement for understanding.”—Scott Adams
“Marriage . . . Why, it is like living in a thimble with a hippopotamus!”—Phyllis Bottome
“When it’s raining gold, reach for a bucket, not a thimble.”—Warren Buffett
“The universe will fill your cup . . . if you carry a big cup, a little cup, or a thimble.”—Sonia Choquette
“The human mind is so complex and things are so tangled up with each other that, to explain a blade of straw, one would have to take to pieces an entire universe. A definition is a sack of flour compressed into a thimble.”—Remy de Gourmont
“I don’t want your candor. I want your soul in a silver thimble.”—Don DeLillo
“You may not be down to your final heartbeat, but you may be down to your last paycheck, solution, or thimble of faith. Each sunrise seems to bring fresh reasons for fear.”—Max Lucado
“I fear mostly my inability to capture all the things that come, I fear their mysterious source, I fear their fate, I fear me, in short. This is true … it’s like finding a river of gold when you haven’t even got a cup to save a cupful . . . you’ve but a thimble, and that thimble is your pathetic brain and labor and humanness.”—Jack Kerouac
“I wanted to get out of ou thimble of a town, where every stone had eyes.”—Herta Muller
“I love all things, not only the grand but the infinitely small: thimble, spurs, plates, flower vases . . . .”—Pablo Neruda
“We are living longer, we social network alone without secrets, and our depth of feeling gets shallower. Soon it will be nothing but a tide pool, then a thimble of water, then a micro-drop.”—Marish Pessi
“An ocean of bliss may rain down from the heavers, but if you hold up only a thimble, that is all you receive.”—Ramakrishna
“What I personally knew about courting women could comfortably fit into a thimble without taking it off your finger first”—Patrick Rothfuss
“To achieve the density of a neutron start at home, just cram a herd of 50 million elephants into the volume of a thimble.”—Neil deGrasse Tyson
“The little I knew about my own self wouldn’t have filled a thimble.”—Alice Walker
“Human language falls short of expressing all that He [God] is, even as a thimble lacks capacity to hold Niagara Falls.”—Blake Western
Thimble and Computing
A leitmotif of computing over the decades has been miniaturization, declining from hulking behemoths that would fill a room to those that today conveniently fit on one’s wrist. Being characterized by miniaturization, it is hardly surprising that computing and its multifarious applications have often been associated with the thimble, which is virtually a synonym for small. Here are a few examples.
The so-called “smart thimble” is being touted by some as the future of 3-D interfaces, replacing the trusty computer mouse.
Although a major development when it was invented in the 1960s, in modern times the mouse has a significant drawback. It works well with only 2-D interfaces. That’s fine for a conventional desktop operating system such as Windows or the Mac OS; however, for increasingly popular 3-D interfaces, it seriously fails.
In 2014, Anh Nguyen and Amy Banic at the University of Wyoming invented an “intelligent thimble” that lets the user interact directly with cyberspace in all three dimensions. They wanted to make the device as small and unobtrusive as possible so that it could be easily transported. They also wanted to make it as inexpensive as possible to put it into the hands of anyone who might need it.
Known as the 3DTouch, the device was a relatively unsophisticated combination of accelerometers, magnetometers, and gyroscopes. It was worn on the tip of a finger, such that the sensors would track the finger’s movements and then relay them to a connected controller. Because it can track a finger’s position in space, the 3DTouch lets users interact with on-screen objects by simply touching, poking, prodding, spinning, or flicking the objects.
Thimble code editor
Thimble is an open-source project launched in 2012 by Mozilla in partnership with CDOT (Center for Development of Open Technology) at Seneca College, Toronto. The company describes the raison d’être for Thimble as follows:
Contributors worldwide have played key roles in Thimble’s development. In particular, more than 350 contributors from more than 30 countries localized Thimble into 33 different languages.
This is a printer that uses a typing element known as a thimble, which contains a full set of alphanumeric characters that are pressed through an ink ribbon onto the paper. In short, a thimble printer acts very much like a typewriter. They were popular decades ago before the advent of inkjet and laser computer printers in the1980s completely stole the market.