On FaceBook I found a story about tomatoes being put on mantels to bring prosperity, with perishable tomatoes eventually being replaced by tomato pincushions with attached strawberry emeries. Kathryn Newell rightfully questioned the story and sent me on a quest to confirm or refute it. I consulted following publications on needlework tools..
Although these pincushions were very common, I found relatively few examples of tomato/strawberry pincushions/emeries; I suspect the books focused on the more unusual/desirable. I have included references to pinballs, because tomatoes may have been derived from them (as indicated by Zann Carter’s Shaker derivation story), and I included references to Shaker, Amish, and Mennonite pincushions, in case they originated tomato pincushions. Zann also contributed information about a superstition of tomatoes being put on the hearth for prosperity, a story suspiciously similar to tomatoes being put on the mantel for prosperity.
Knowing it is nearly impossible to disprove a negative, I was really looking for confirmation. Despite some of the publications telling origin stories, none repeated the questionable story. However, there is ample evidence that tomato and strawberry pincushions and emeries originated in the Victorian era (1849-1901), and that tomato pincushions evolved from earlier pinballs with the Victorian penchant for making pincushions look like fruits, vegetables, and numerous other novelty shapes.
---. Authentic Victoria Pincushions Originally Published 1896! Set #1 (2007) Dakota Prairie Treasures; Instructions for making many late 19th century pincushions but no tomatoes or strawberries.
---. Authentic Victoria Pincushions Originally Published 1898! Set #2 (2007) Dakota Prairie Treasures; depicts a pincushion with two tomatoes on one stem.
---. Authentic Victoria Pincushions Originally Published 1901! Set #4 (2007) Dakota Prairie Treasures; Instructions for making many late 19th century pincushions but no tomatoes or strawberries.
---. Bonhams The Sewing Sale catalog (Dec 2001) Bonhams, London, UK; many high-end needlework tools including pincushions, but no tomatoes/strawberries.
---. Christie's Thimbles & Sewing Accessories catalog (Jun 2000) Christie's, London, UK; only cover pictures, only descriptions of seemingly exquisite needlework tools including pincushions, but no tomatoes or strawberries.
---. Phillips Textiles catalog (Sep 1999) Phillips, London, UK; textiles/laces, needlework tools, & clothing/accessories, but no pincushions.
---. Weldon's Practical Pincushions (Originally published ~1894 by Weldons Pub Co, London; 2009) Iva Rose Vintage Reproductions, New Bedford, MA; (Set #3, subtitled: Originally Published c1900!; 2006); republication by Dakota Prairie Treasures; Instructions for making many late 19th century pincushions but no tomatoes or strawberries.
Andere, Mary. Old Needlework Boxes & Tools Their Story and How to Collect Them (1971) Drake Publishers Ltd., NY; “Pinballs dated from the 1720 onwards were popular to mid-nineteenth century. The Victorian era was, perhaps the heyday of the pincushion. They were made in every conceivable shape. Fruits were much in vogue, strawberries in particular, since their pitted surface lent itself to reproductions by the use of pinheads studded into red velvet or silk.” No tomato pincushions mentioned.
Barker, Harold (compiler). A Pictorial Survey of Mostly American Sewing Tools & Supplies (1835-1950) Volume I (1835-1908) (1998) Harold Barker, Ada, OH; This book is a compilation of numerous advertisements and articles organized only by date. Two strawberry emeries dated 1893 & 1894 depicted.
Bowles, Ella Shannon. Homespun Handicrafts (1931) J.B. Lippincott Co., Philadelphia & London; with chapters on spinning, weaving, knitting, embroidery, quilts, rug-making Netting, & lace, includes tools; but no pincushions.
Burgess, Fred. W. Chats on Household Curios (c1914); Frederick A. Stokes Co., NY; pp 223-250 chapter: "The Old Workbox" includes spinning wheels and numerous "Little Accessories" for lace-making, cutting, knitting, pins, & pincushions, but no tomato/strawberry pincushions/emeries.
Burn, Diane Pelham. Sew Precious & Children's Needlework Tools & Dolls' Sewing Tools (2010) Diane Pelham Burn, UK; Children's & dolls' needlework tools of all sorts; depicts a couple tomato pincushions & several strawberry emeries, but not mentioned in text.
Burn, Diane Pelham. Sew Small & Children's Needlework Tools (1995-Thimble Collectors Intn'l, 2010) Mintsalad Design, UK; Children's needlework tools of all sorts, however pincushions are barely mentioned and no tomato/strawberry pincushions/emeries mentioned.
Clement, Joyce. Official Price Guide to Sewing Collectibles (1987) House of Collectables, NY; all types of needlework tools, including small chapters on crochet tools, threads, & thread holders; pincushions are barely mentioned, however no tomato/strawberry pincushions/emeries mentioned.
Colby, Averil. Pincushions (1975) B.T.Batsford Ltd., London & Sydney; no tomato/strawberry pincushions/emeries mentioned.
Franklin, Linda Campbell. 300 Years of Housekeeping Collectibles (1992) Books Americana, Florence, AL; includes sewing/mending tools, auto knitter, & laundering tools; but no pincushions.
Gaussen, Elaine. Miller’s Sewing Accessories & A Collector’s Guide (2001) Octopus Pub. Group, Ltd., London; sewing accessories of all types, including a small number of crochet hooks, spool knaves and pincushions, but no tomato/strawberry pincushions/emeries mentioned.
Gengelbach, Darlene J. Encyclopedia of Children's Sewing Collectibles Identification & Values Sewing Sets Dolls Books Patterns (2007) Collector Books, Paducah, KY; mostly sewing, but also knitting, crochet, weaving, books & patterns; depicts “a small hinged sewing stand, like many used in the 1930s” with tomato pincushion; and a “1957 Junior Miss Embroidery Case” with mini tomato/strawberry pincushion & emery.
Gower, Jolynn (Acquisitions Editor). Notions & Over 50 Great Gadgets You Can't Live Without (2000) Taunton Press, Inc, Newtown, CT; no tomato/strawberry pincushions/emeries mentioned.
Groves, Sylvia. The History of Needlework Tools & Accessories 2nd impr. (1968) Country Life Books, Feltham, Middlesex, UK; all types of needlework including tambour, crochet & knitting tools; regarding pincushions/emeries: “Nothing was too fanciful for these engaging trifles…” “The Victorian age abounded with pincushions.” Two tomato-style pincushions are depicted.
Gullers, Barbara D. Antique Sewing Tools & Tales (1992) Gullers Pictorial Partnership, Phoenix, AZ; stories about textile tools and beautiful photos of exquisite needlework tools including a small selection of crochet & tambour hooks and yarn & thread holders but no tomato/strawberry pincushions or emeries.
Houart, Victor. Sewing Accessories & An Illustrated History (1984) Souvenir Press Ltd., London; Miscellaneous tools including pincushions and emeries: “Most of the fanciful pincushion containers were made in the shape of fruit (mainly strawberries), flowers, … “ “[emery cushions] went out of fashion in the early 1920s when needles and pins were made in stainless steel.” [Although I bought at least one tomato pincushion with attached strawberry in the early 1960s.—Karen Ballard]
Jeffords, Mignon S. Sharing Sewing Sets (1984) B.F. Long Printing Co., Spartanburg, SC; etuis, necessaires, chatelaines, etc.; two strawberry emeries, one on a chatelaine, pictured.
Johnson, Eleanor. Needlework & Embroidery Tools (1999) Shire Pubs Ltd., Princes Risborough, Buckinghamshire, UK; “Another type of cushion…is the emery cushion”… “One type often met is a small fabric or knitted strawberry decorated with small yellow beads to add realism.” Two tomato pincushions are pictured.
Johnson, Eleanor. Needlework Tools Shire 38 (1978-83) Shire Pubs., Ltd., Aylesbury, Bucks, UK; includes numerous needlework tools, including a strawberry emery and a tomato-like pincushion; no text about them.
Longman, E.D. & Loch, S. Pins & Pincushions (1911) Longmans. Green & Co., London, NY, Bombay & Calcutta; about pins of all types including hairpins, pincushions, & related superstitions/customs/charms; includes a large section on late eighteenth century pinballs, but no mention of tomato/strawberry pincushions/emeries in the 35 page chapter on pincushions.
McConnel, Bridget. The Story of Antique Needlework Tools (1999) Shiffer Pub. Co., PA; all types of needlework tools including a small number of crochet/tambour hooks, thread holders, pincushions, & emeries. “Pin-balls are a very typical eighteenth century item.” Pictured: two leather tomato-shaped pincushions & one strawberry emery.
Proctor, Molly. Needlework Tools & Accessories & A Collector’s Guide (1990) B.T. Batsford, London; covers all types of needlework tools including pincushions: “…there are so many variations [of pincushions] this [categorizing] is almost impossible.” “From 1880-1910 pincushions were made into realistic shapes using patterns printed in journals.” However no tomatoes or strawberries mentioned or depicted.
Rogers, Gay Ann. An Illustrated History of Needlework Tools (1983, 4th printing 1991) John Murray, London; includes sewing & threadwork tools including pincushions; “By the eighteenth century the small pincushion worn suspended from the waist had evolved into two major types associated with nineteenth century pincushions: the pinball and the disc.” … “In the nineteenth century needlewomen made pincushions in every shape from stars, flowers, vegetables, and animals of every type.” “Emeries usually came in small sizes, often in fanciful imitation of berries or of miniature fruit.” Pictured: 2 tomato-style pincushions, a strawberry emery with silver cap, and a small tomato emery.
Rogers, Gay Ann. Price Guide to An Illustrated History of Needlework Tools (1989) Needlework Unlimited, Claremont, CA; includes prices for the pictured pincushions and emeries.
Sommer, Elyse. Textile Collector’s Guide & Valuables… Usables… Reusables (1978) Monarch, NY; includes a small section on textile tools of all sorts including pincushions, but no tomato/strawberry pincushions/emeries.
Souder, Mattie. Notions (1922) The Ronald Press Co., NY; includes contemporary sewing tools & notions, but no pincushions or emeries.
Taunton, Nerylla. Antique Needlework Tools & Embroideries (1997) Antiques Collectors’ Club Ltd., Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK; needlework tools, including some crochet/tambour hooks, thread holders, & pincushions; but no tomato/strawberry pincushions/emeries.
Thompson, Helen Lester Sewing Tools & Trinkets Vol 1 (1997) Collector Books, Paducah, KY; numerous needlework tools including pincushions. Doesn’t have any text about tomato/strawberry pincushions or emeries, but depicts several of each from the 1900s-1930s, including 3 Mennonite “make-do” large strawberry pincushions with multiple smaller hanging strawberries hanging from each, on wine glass & compote cup bases.
Thompson, Helen Lester Sewing Tools & Trinkets Vol 2 (2002) Collector Books, Paducah, KY; numerous needlework tools including pincushions. Doesn’t have any text about tomato/strawberry pincushions or emeries, but depicts several of each from the 1900s-1930s.
Whiting, Gertrude. Tools & Toys of Stitchery (1928) Columbia University Press, NY; reprinted as: Old-Time Tools & Toys of Needlework (1971) Dover Pubs., Inc., NY; Book contains information & photos of many types of needlework implements including pincushions. “Most of us are familiar with red felt tomato shaped pincushions.” Whiting goes on to describe one purchased at “a neighborhood fair” owned by a friend of hers.
Zalkin, Estelle. Thimbles & Sewing Implements (1988) Wallace-Homestead, Radnor, PA; Needlework tools of all types, including pincushions and emeries; “Ball-shaped pin cushions featuring an attached cord or ribbon were fashionable as early as the seventeenth century.” … “Shaker pincushions usually are made…in the shape of a heart or triangle…a pattern and instructions for a pin ball appears in Godey’s Lady’s Book in 1885.” … “Pin cushions took many new shapes as the nineteenth century ended. The tomato shape is the most common, often with a strawberry shaped emery attached.” … “The most common shape for an emery is a strawberry, often covered with bright red fabric, usually silk…”; Pictured: a tomato pincushion with strawberry emery fitted into an oversized pewter thimble, 1 tomato and numerous strawberry emeries.
Magazine Articles on Needlework Tools:
Barry, Elizabeth. "Sew Collectible" Sew News (Mar 1999); includes sewing machines, toy sewing machines, buttons, & sewing notions. Including pincushions — very general information on sewing tools; with no mention of tomato/strawberry pincushions/emeries.
Beetler, Dianne L. "'Sew-Sew' Collection" Antiques & Auction News (Sept 18, 1987); no mention of tomato/strawberry pincushions/emeries.
Bishop, Lisa Mullins. "Gifts for Girls" Early American Life Vol.XXVI, No.1 (Feb 1995); mostly needlework tools but no pincushions.
Carlisle, Lillian Baker "Beadwork Whimsies" Spinning Wheel (Sept. 1964); no pictures but text mentions pincushions: “What of the bead pen-wipes, needle-books, strawberry emery cushions and pincushions with a known history of having been made in the home by a member of one’s family? Where did the ladies find their patters for their work? They located them in the ladies’ magazines – in Godey’s, Peterson’s, Graham’s Illustrated, and in the Lady’s Friend. During the 1850s and 1860s, many patterns for these items were given as suggestions for ornamental and useful sale articles for Fancy Fairs. They were made in all shapes…from silk, satin, cashmere, velvet; they were stuffed with tow, cotton wadding, wool, or bran.
Hubbard, Clarence T. "Hair Wreaths & Samplers of Yore" Antiques Journal (Oct 1970); Includes needlework tools; pictured: a large strawberry emery c1870.
Hurt, Zuelia Ann. "Craft Tools -- Then & Now" Decorating & Craft Ideas --Pincushions (Mar 1980); “The pinball style remained popular longer than any other. The ever-present tomato pincushion of today can trace its root back to this shape. The remainder of its heritage comes from the Victorian era when fruits, vegetables, … and a multitude of novelty subjects turned into pincushions.”
Litz, Joyce. "Sewing is Ancient Art / Pins & Needles Intrigue Collectors" The Antique Journal (June 1974); Pictured: c1900 strawberry emery. “Other Victorian pincushions have taken the form of a jockey cap, a basket, velvet strawberries…”
Matthiesen, Agnes. "Treasures From Grandmother's Sewing Basket" Spinning Wheel (May/June 1983); no pincushions, emeries barely mentioned, mostly crochet hooks.
Mebane, John. "Pincushions for Collectors" Antiques Journal (Dec 1968); “There were scores of inexpensive nineteenth century pincushions…many in the shape of such things as tomatoes and strawberries.”
Murphy, Catherine (editor). "Price Guide to Antiques" Antiques Trader "Sewing Adjuncts" (Dec/Jan 1993); Shows values for a few tomato/strawberry pincushions/emeries. I also consulted: "Sewing Adjuncts" Vol.9, No.4, Issue 30 (Winter 1978); "Sewing Adjuncts" (Dec/Jan 1994); "Sewing Adjuncts (n.d.), but no tomato/strawberry pincushions/emeries found in them.
Nazzaro, Joe. "Pinning Down the Past" Country Victorian Decorating & Lifestyle(Feb/Mar 1994); About pincushions with mottos, no tomato/strawberry pincushions/emeries.
Reed, Robert. "Stitches in Time" American Country Collectibles (Nov 1992) Pincushions barely mentioned; no tomato/strawberry pincushions or emeries.
Ryan, Amy H. "Pincushions" McCall's Needlework (Dec 1994); Pincushions sometimes had their own accessories – emeries...The most common shape was a strawberry made from bright red fabric one can still see strawberry emeries attached to the tomato pincushions that are so popular at the present time.
Schiffer, Margaret. "Needlework Accessories" Antiques (Sept 1962); pincushions mentioned, but no tomato/strawberry pincushions or emeries.
Shaffer, Sandra C. "Sewing Tools in the Collection of Colonial Williamsburg" Antiques (Aug 1973); depicts one "18th century or 19th century" tomato-style pincushion on a silver base.
Swan, Susan Burrows. "Collecting Sewing Implements" Early American Life (June 1979); Pincushions included, but no tomatoes/strawberries.
Thompson, Frances. "Old Needlework Sought" Antique Monthly (Aug 1979); Doesn’t include pincushions.
Whittenmore, Edwin C. "Pins & Pincushions" Spinning Wheel (March 1966); Depicts various vegetable & fruit pincushions, but no pictures or text of tomatoes or strawberries.
Zalkin, Estelle. "1800s Seamstress Wielded Waxers, Emeries" Antique Week (Jan 15, 1990); “Emeries were made in a variety of shapes, the most common is the 1 ½ inch strawberry. Others include the carrot, acorn, and heart. Sometimes the strawberry-, acorn-, or tomato-shaped emeries were capped with silver.”