A Dutch metalworker named Lofting made the first thimble in England in 1695. Worn on the thumb and shaped like a bell, it was called the thumb bell. The shape changed, but the modified name remains.
During World War I, the British government collected silver thimbles from “those who had nothing to give” and melted them down to buy hospital equipment.
The Thimble Museum in Creglingen, Germany, opened in August 1982 to honour thimble makers.
In the 1800s, a thimbleful was a legitimate measure of alcohol, leading to the phrase “just a thimbleful”. A thimble measured 2 inches high and held about 50mm of spirits.
Victorian schoolteachers used thimble-knocking as a means of discipline, knocking disobedient students on the head with an iron thimble to encourage them to pay attention. “Women of the night” also used thimble-knocking, tapping on a window to announce their presence.
Thimbles were used as love tokens. In Victorian times, a man knew his feelings were reciprocated if he gave a girl a silver thimble and she accepted it. A utilitarian, base-metal thimble meant he expected a housewife, but a jewelled gold thimble meant he wanted a lady of the manor.
A thimble was one of the original player tokens in the game of Monopoly. It was retired in 2017.
People who collect thimbles are known as digitabulists.
Red-topped thimbles were used to advertise tea, cough syrup, soap, cocoa, milk, boot polish, bread, insurance and politicians in Britain in the 1930s and 1940s. In the United States, aluminium thimbles advertised Ford and General Motors, and plastic thimbles bore slogans such as “Vote for Nixon”. Thimbles were also given away with household products such as washing powder and tea in the 1920s.
Thimbles are given as gifts in the stories of Peter Pan, who thinks they are kisses.
Queen Elizabeth I gave a thimble lavishly encrusted with precious stones to one of her ladies-in-waiting.
In the 1800s, thimbles were made mostly from silver, a soft metal easily pierced by needles. Charles Horner patented the idea of a steel layer sandwiched between two layers of silver in the early 1880s and went on to sell thousands of these thimbles under the trade name Dorcas. If you own a Dorcas thimble, check the rim – those produced after 1905 have Dorcas printed on it, those made earlier feature the acronym PAT (for patent).
Early thimbles were sometimes made using whale bone, horn or ivory, but today are generally made out of metal, leather, rubber, wood, glass or china. Advanced thimble makers would enhance their thimbles with semi-precious stones, and thimble artists would also use enamelling.