Female Ancestors Using the Thimble



A thimble is a small pitted cup worn on the finger that protects it from being pricked or poked by a needle while sewing. The Old English word þȳmel, the ancestor of thimble, is derived from Old English þūma, the ancestor of the English word ‘thumb’. It was Queen Elizabeth I is said to have given one of her ladies-in-waiting a thimble set with precious stones—but the vast majority of metal thimbles were made of brass.

The modern thimble was invented in England in 1695 by a Dutch metal worker, named John Lofting. At the time, it was called a “thumb bell” because it was shaped like a bell and most often worn over the thumb. After the Industrial Revolution in the early 1800s, the size and shape of thimbles changed because they were no longer being made by hand. Earlier models were thicker and featured a dome on the top, while machine-made thimbles were thinner and featured a flatter top. Giving a silver-made thimble was a grand gift.

While their primary use was to protect the fingertips when pushing a needle through fabric or leather, thimbles were also used for a variety of other purposes. Women or ‘ladies’ of the night used them to tap on windows and doors to announce their presence. In the 1800s, they were also used to measure spirits / liquor, giving rise to the saying, “just a thimbleful.” Even schoolmistresses would tap on the heads of unruly pupils with their thimbles.

A thimble with an irregular pattern of dimples was likely made before the 1850s. Another consequence of the mechanization 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.


One superstition about thimbles says that if you have three thimbles given to you, you will never be married. Thimbles are also lucky; years ago it was tradition to put a miniature silver thimble into the Christmas pudding, and the finder would enjoy good fortune throughout the year. Having a gold or silver thimble means that you will be surrounded by people whose company will bring you true joy and satisfaction.

Today, thimbles are still used for sewing and have also become popular items to collect. People who collect thimbles are called digitabulists.

Check and see if there are any family heirloom thimbles.

Photo: Classic Thimble

Related FamilyTree.com Blogs:

Everyday Items Not Used Anymore
Skills Forgotten
Not Living the Way Your Grandparents Did

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