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In his famous description of the division of labour:

One man draws out the wire, another straights it, a third cuts it, a fourth points it, a fifth grinds it at the top for receiving the head; to make the head requires two or three distinct operations; to put it on, is a peculiar business, to whiten the pins is another; it is even a trade by itself to put them into the paper ...

What did he mean by "put them into the paper"? Was this just some sort of paper packaging for the pins?

(By the way, my understanding is that pins are what we'd today call nails. Please correct me if I am mistaken.)

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Alecos is correct that Smith is talking about packaging, but I don't believe that "paper" refers to a paper bag.

Straight pins used to be sold on sheets of paper (usually as sets of a dozen), through which they passed twice, like so:

sheets of straight pins

So by "put them into the paper" Smith means exactly what he said: the pins are put into paper before being sold.

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"Putting them into the paper" is indeed "packaging". This could refer to bulk packaging -say, put many pins into a (paper) large bag, and the final customer takes out the desired number, in which case you also have a on-the-spot retail packaging (which is how it is still done today in many terittories), or create small packages of pins to be sold as a unit (usually round numbers of them).

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Regarding the nature of the pins, the fact that one step is "to whiten" may suggest that they were indeed pins and not nails. It's hard to see what purpose would be served by whitening nails for use in carpentry etc. However, an entry on "pin" in The British Encyclopeadia, or Dictionary of Arts and Sciences published in 1809 (some 30 years after Smith's Wealth of Nations) refers to the use of tin to whiten pins "used chiefly by women in adjusting their dress".

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  • $\begingroup$ Interesting. The pins = nails thing was simply what I was once told by David Colander. Briefly googling, I find some who say the same, but no definite evidence. $\endgroup$ – Kenny LJ Mar 12 '16 at 1:34

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