This is from the first chapter:

My mother was sitting by the fire, but poorly in health, and very low in spirits, looking at it through her tears, and desponding heavily about herself and the fatherless little stranger, who was already welcomed by some grosses of prophetic pins, in a drawer upstairs, to a world not at all excited on the subject of his arrival...

What are those pins? How do they look like? Why are they called like that? Why pins? Why prophetic? Then there is another mention of them:

‘Bless the Baby!’ exclaimed Miss Betsey, unconsciously quoting the second sentiment of the pincushion in the drawer upstairs, but applying it to my mother instead of me, ‘I don’t mean that. I mean your servant-girl.’

So there were also some words there? What words and why?

  • Have you looked around online? There's discussion of the phrase. See: forum.wordreference.com/threads/prophetic-pins.2321150 and bookdoors.com/annotation.php?annotationID=6535.
    – DyingIsFun
    Oct 5, 2016 at 19:35
  • 1
    @Silenus Of course I did! I saw both of these. But they are not at all exhaustive. The first one gives some already dead link and some guess. I can't find any information about giving pins after birth. Why does she have pins beforehand? Why are they prophetic? The second link contradicts with the first. And why would a cusion of pins be nursery supplies? Why does the cusion have some words? What are those words? This does not make any sence at all. I expect there might be somebody knowing about it something, not just what is writtenon the web.
    – Gherman
    Oct 5, 2016 at 19:55
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    fair enough! It's a good question and I agree that those links are not at all definitive.
    – DyingIsFun
    Oct 5, 2016 at 19:56
  • It should be noted that a gross is a dozen dozen -- 144. So "some grosses" means "hundreds" -- it's not an intimation of distastefulness.
    – Hot Licks
    Oct 5, 2016 at 20:40

1 Answer 1


According to the Victoria and Albert Museum,

Back in the 18th and 19th centuries, a popular gift for newborns was a layette pincushion.

They show an example of such a pincushion on which is written, with careully arranged pins, the message "Health to the little stranger":

enter image description here

We must imagine that Dickens was referring to this practice in both of the passages you quote.

Regarding Dickens calling the pins "prophetic", as well as his reference to their "second sentiment", consider the following, also from the Victoria and Albert Museum:

These pincushions were in some ways the equivalent of the modern birth congratulation card....Layette pincushions were generally given after the birth, as there was a superstition that the pins could increase the pain felt by the mother during birth. That would be a very unwelcome present indeed!

My guess is the pins were "prohetic" in the sense that the mother received them before birth, thus prophesying her pain at childbirth. The "second sentiment" refers to the message that was written on the pincushion (in this case "Bless the Baby!)."

  • Thanks for your help! I still wonder why bookdoors.com( bookdoors.com/annotation.php?annotationID=6535) calls them "Nursery supplies". This is odd. Maybe it's just a mistake?
    – Gherman
    Oct 5, 2016 at 20:06
  • I think it's probably a mistake. The passages are very hard to interpret if you're not familiar with the pincushion convention.
    – DyingIsFun
    Oct 5, 2016 at 20:07
  • A pointed comment. Oct 5, 2016 at 22:23

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