(vol. IV, p. 233.)
Some months ago there was a brief discussion in Notes and Queries (English) about the invention of the thimble, based upon an item similar to that printed in these columns. Mr. Skeat objected to the popular derivation from thumb-bell, because it is not consistent with the early spelling of the word. There was, he said, an Anglo-Saxon thymel, a Middle English thimbil, and the spelling thymbyl occurs in 1440. By other contributors the fact that thimbles were made at Islington by the Loftings, in 1695, was confirmed, and, on the whole, there seemed to be little dissent to the received opinion that this was the date of the introduction of thimbles into general use in England, though not of their invention.
It seems to me that this can be disproved. It chanced, not long ago, that I looked through some plays dated before the middle of the seventeenth century, with the special purpose of learning what light they threw upon the customs of that time, and among my notes, I find allusions to thimbles implying a common use of this implement in England long before 1695. Other readers may perhaps be able to adduce other and earlier instances in point.
Before giving these, it may be said that Prof. Skeat's reference to the year 1440 probably pertains to the "Promptorium Parvulorum," the English and Latin dictionary compiled at that date by a Dominican of Lynne, where the word is found with the synonym, theca; but it also occurs in a bit of ancient popular poetry of unknown authorship, thought by some to be of still earlier date, " The Debate of the Carpenter's Tools," to be found in Hazlitt's " Early Popular Poetry," Vol. i :
The comparison implies a familiar thing, but the "thymbyll " may not have been like those of our inquiry.
" Seyd the wymbylle [,'. e., gimlet]
I ame als round as a thymbvíl " (p. 80).
Shakespeare's references to thimbles are familiar. Although in "The Taming of the Shrew," when Petruchio calls the tailor, "Thou Thimble !" and Grumio would face him down " though [his] little finger be armed in a thimble," it is a man's implement that is in question, and apparently not worn like our own, yet in "King John," v, 2, it is ladies who, in the war-like time,
"Their thimbles into gaunt'lets change, Their needles to lances."Sir William D'Avenant's "The Wits" was first played in 1634, and printed two years later. I quote from an edition with modernized spelling. Pert, a soldier employed in the Low Countries, but now in England, says (Act i, Sc. 1) in reply to the question of a companion, that it is
"Not a brass thimble to me, but honour!"whether a Spanish Don or a Dutch " fritter-seller of Bombell " conquers in that contest.
Brass thimbles, then, were sufficiently common to be of small value in Pert's estimation, much like a "brass farthing," or a "Sou Marqué" (see Vol. iv, p. 247) nowadays. If any one argues that this is the speech of a soldier who had been much out of England and had caught up the saying elsewhere, there is not lacking better proof for our case.
In the same play, Mrs. Snore is a constable's wife, a coarse woman who distinctly belongs to "the million," and in railing against her neighbor, an equally unrefined woman eager after gain, she declares:
" She took my silver thimble To pawn when I w¡is a maid ; I paid her A penny a month use.""Good News from Plymouth," by the same author, was licensed for acting in 1635, although not printed until 1673.
(Act iii, Sc. i.)
In this play, a spendthrift's silver seal, engraved with " the lover's scutcheon, a bleeding heart," is missing from his wrist, where the fashion of the day kept seals dangling, and a bantering companion avers that it has
" Gone long since to adorn
His mistress' court cupboard ; [and] on a cloth
Of network, edged with a ten-penny lace,
Stands now between her thimble and her bodkin,
Objects of state, believ't, and ornament."
(Act. i, Sc. I.)
These thimbles must have been to all intents like those of to-day; they were made of brass and of silver, were for women's use, and while they had a considerable money value, judging from the pawn-broker's rate, and were set forth for display as we should place a cherished piece of china, yet they were.owned by the common classes, and could certainly not have been very rare. This was sixty years before Lofting made thimbles at Islington.
Several silver bodkins, like the one with which the thimble shared the honors of the "court cupboard," are in existence; tome have even recently been found, and whether any early thimbles of known date are still preserved would be an interesting inquiry.