WASHINGTON—With unemployment at its highest rate in 25 years and countless retirement savings wiped out by the collapse of the stock market, experts say the American pushpin industry may be the lone bright spot in an otherwise bleak financial landscape.
"Everyone knows that when the economy contracts, pushpin sales expand," said Paul Michelson, a pushpin analyst for Wells Fargo. "In uncertain times, they provide a sense of stability to those who just lost their jobs or may be late with their mortgage payments."
Added Michelson, "Pushpins are sharp, rigid, and enable you to attach thin items to the wall. People really gravitate toward that."
In times of prosperity, however, consumers tend to be more interested in high-ticket items such as flat-screen TVs or oil paintings. During economic booms, the pushpins go in the back of the junk drawer until hard times hit again.
Since Edwin Moore's invention of the pushpin in 1900, people have turned to these inexpensive office supplies en masse during economic recessions. In the 1930s, pushpins were used by President Roosevelt to display signage detailing various New Deal social programs; in the recessions of the mid-1970s and early '90s, families affixed unpaid bills, help wanted ads, and inspirational posters to the wall with the versatile fasteners.
In the current economic slump, pushpin sales have risen 79 percent, and retailers are struggling to keep them in stock.
Analysts agree that the industry is experiencing a growth not seen since 1983, as consumers who once thought nothing of spending $30 or $40 on an impulse item, such as DVDs or an MP3 player, have found themselves with less disposable income. With an average price point of 62 cents for a card of 60, pushpins—or "thumbtacks," as they are sometimes known—provide an attractive alternative to the average consumer.
"This is a great time to be in pushpins," economist Brad DeLong said. "In a soft economy, people turn to family for support, and they want pictures of their loved ones in a place where they can see them, only they can't afford to have those photos professionally framed. That makes the pushpin a very hot commodity."
But the popularity of pushpins might go beyond their utilitarian use. Market psychologist Julian Parson believes pushpins are deeply rooted in the American psyche.
"Just think back to the earliest memory you have," Parson said. "It's probably your mom in the kitchen looking at a recipe she had on the wall. And what held that recipe in place? Pushpins. They harken back to simpler times—baseball and apple pie—instilling a feeling that everything is all right."
"Especially the ones with the brass heads," Parson added.
As the financial news turns more and more dire, pushpin display racks in grocery stores are being stripped bare. But John Nayer, author of Pinned To The Wall: Thumbtacks And The American People In Times Of Economic Turmoil, says that the reasons for the success of the pushpin are not as simple as some would have you believe.
Nayer's book posits that it's not just a matter of items being placed on a vertical surface at eye level, because if that were the case, analysts would see a commensurate increase in tape and staple sales. In reality, Nayer writes, staples make people uneasy, and tape represents a disposability that many are not comfortable with.
"Pushpins say, 'Use me over and over again,'" Nayer writes. "They are the comfort food of household supplies."
There are other less optimistic theories about the popularity of pushpins. Some see a correlation between increases in sales and crime: As the market dips, the thinking goes, crime surges, and police need more pushpins for city crime maps and wanted posters.
Others claim that in tough times people are desperate to feel they're capable of making a mark on the world, which they can accomplish by spelling out their initials on bulletin boards.
Nevertheless, most analysts agree that the pushpin upswing is indicative of a revitalized interest throughout the domestic sector in affixing things to walls. And with the recession projected to continue for at least a year, pushpin sales show no sign of slowing.
"I needed some pins," Omaha, NE homemaker Susan Bloski said. "My husband's unemployment just ran out, things have been pretty tight around the house, and, with so many things that need to be put on walls, pushpins are really the only thing I have to look forward to when I wake up."