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As eg from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Notions_(sewing)

The term is chiefly in American English... was also formerly used in the phrase "Yankee notions", meaning American products

I'm wondering if anyone can provide a more detailed explanation of how this word came to have its sewing-related meaning.

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2 Answers 2

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The good ol' Oxford English Dictionary provides:


11. In plural.

a. Chiefly North American. Small wares, esp. cheap, useful articles. Now chiefly: spec. haberdashery; buttons, hooks, ribbon, thread, etc. Yankee notions: see Yankee n. and adj. Compounds b.

1796 Aurora (Philadelphia) 1 Feb. A nest of Boston boxes, commonly called notions.

1803 F. Asbury Jrnl. 13 June (1821) III. 106 How would it tell to the South, that priests were among the notions of Yankee traffick?

1830 J. Galt Lawrie Todd I. iii. xiv. 278 Mr. Hoskins and his wife, with a great cargo of wares and other notions in their waggons, arrived.

1842 C. M. Kirkland Forest Life II. xxxix. 166 Can I suit ye to-day, ma'am? I've all sorts o' notions.

1876 C. D. Warner Winter on Nile xii. 157 The artisans work up ostrich feathers into a variety of ‘notions’.

1902 G. H. Lorimer Lett. Self-made Merchant to Son 135 I was traveling out of Chicago for hammer & Hawkins, wholesale dry-goods, gent's furnishings and notions.

1964 McCall's Sewing in Colour ii. 22 While making a list of the fabrics and trims needed, check the ‘Notions’ section to see what notions are needed.

1978 A. S. Byatt Virgin in Garden xix. 192 Down past the ground floor, a mart of little things, a Vanity Fair of notions and necessities, novelties, and eye-catchers.

1992 E. Lipman Way Men Act (1993) 6 They put everything back in the green bag from Goldenberg's department Store—the pattern pieces pinned to the fabric, the notions, [etc.].

b. North American. Articles or wares of various kinds, forming a miscellaneous cargo on a ship. Obsolete.

1805 Ann. Rev. 3 31 The Americans.., finding no longer a market there for their lumber cargoes, or notions, as they call them.

1834 F. Marryat Peter Simple III. v. 68 Her cargo consisted of what the Americans called notions, that is, in English, an assorted cargo.

1840 R. H. Dana Two Years before Mast xxxv. 133 A cargo of fresh provisions, mules, tin bake-pans and other notions.

1872 Atlantic Monthly Apr. 398 A schooner full of ‘fish & notions’, a flag of truce to the enemy, and a free range of the seas.


So, it seems to me that the older sense is wares of any kind, especially those worth importing (often from the US North) but of sundry nature.

From there, it's changed more into miscellany associated with sewing, clothing, and bric-a-brac.

Why the change, I don't know beyond what those two series of OED quotes suggest. Maybe it followed the same path as words like "meat," "deer," and "man" to go from denoting a general category to naming a specific instance of something in that category.

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    It seems Maryat's Mr Simple didn't think much of this Yankee linguistic n̶o̶t̶i̶o̶n̶ innovation
    – zeno
    May 19, 2023 at 10:18
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A quick Google search suggests that the term originated form the southern United States.

According to Wiktionary, the word notion can be used colloquially to mean:

invention, ingenious device, knicknack

From New Hampshire Glossary:

goods made in New England, made widely known by traveling Yankee peddlers (salespeople)

It refers to small household goods and tools not produced in the South:

pins, needles, hooks, scissors, combs, small hardware, buttons, thread, ribbon, minor trinkets, knick-knacks, household industries, nails, clocks, tin ware, and miscellaneous novelties

The association with sewing is perhaps that sewing goods are desirable products, not made at home, which are easy for a travelling salesperson to carry around in large numbers.

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  • The19th century folk song Oh Shenandoah has the following couplet about a trader going down the Missouri river: "The white man loved the Indian maiden, / With notions his canoe was laden." -- i.e. small tradable goods.
    – George K.
    May 18, 2023 at 19:17
  • @GeorgeK., I can't help but read a double entendre in that couplet
    – wes
    May 19, 2023 at 3:08

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