The earliest 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, present day St Albans, in the UK and can be seen in the museum there. Thimbles are most usually made from metal, leather, rubber, wood, glass or china. Early thimbles were sometimes made from bone, horn or ivory.
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. 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.
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. If you find a thimble with an irregular pattern of dimples, it was probably made before the 1850s. 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.
Collecting thimbles became popular in the UK when many companies made special thimbles to commemorate the Great Exhibition held in the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, London.
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.
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. 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.
People who collect thimbles are known as digitabulists.
The English Patient makes
profound use of the thimble
from both literal and symbolic