By Norris Chambers

              When you hear the word “pincushion” you normally think of a little padded thing usually made of cloth and stuffed with cotton. When a pin has been removed and needs to be saved for use at another time it is pushed into the top portion of the holder with the sharp point safely out of the way. The old timers used something like this and the modern generation of point-pushers hasn’t found a better way to save pins and needles.

            The old timers from the twenties and thirties were frequently involved with other items with similar names. As an example, there was a cactus that grew almost flat on the ground with the upper half and many thick, tough thorns protruding, just waiting for some barefoot boy to hang his toes in the mass of tough claws. These cacti were known by many names, such as devil's pincushion, horse crippler, devil's head and candy cactus.

            It is easy to see how such names might apply. A very large one could easily cripple a horse if the foot hit the thorns exactly right. Either one of the devil’s names are properly applied. One of the names, candy cactus, might make you wonder, but near the end of the season the vile plant produced some very succulent fruit. It was easily harvested by carefully pulling the big morsels from between the thorns and placing them in your container. Some farm folks made jams and jellies from them in addition to just eating them as they came out of the thorny nest.

            Clifton thought of a practical use for the thorns on the pincushion. The idea popped into his head one day when we were listening to some old record on the windup phonograph. The record had been purchased in a junk shop and even at its young age was a little scratchy. Old scratched records sometimes sounded softer and better when the steel needle was replaced with one of the available fiber needles. Since we didn’t have a fiber needle it was perhaps appropriate for him to think of using a cactus needle from a pincushion. They were about the right diameter and length and the slight curve shouldn’t make any difference to the sound vibrations.

            There were several of the pincushion cacti in the calf pasture just east of the hog pen so we were soon there with pliers plucking likely looking thorns to try as phonograph needles. We managed to remove several without injury and proceeded to the house to see if we had made a new discovery. The first one we tried worked like a pleasant dream. The scratching sound was subdued considerably and the music was softer and smoother. The same thorn played several records before it became too worn to work well. Even the purchased needles were recommended for only one play for the best tone.

            Clifton suggested that we should share our find with others in the community who were fortunate enough to have a phonograph. I quickly agreed and added that we should package them and sell them at a lower price than those already on the market. Our manufacturing cost would be nothing and our packaging expense would be negligible.

            I thought my idea was a winner, but further discussion convinced me that to get packages printed and advertise the needles would require considerably more capital than the sale of possum hides had netted us. But we could sell a few to people we knew who had phonographs and liked a cleaner, smoother sound of music.

            We gathered several dozen nice, thick cactus thorns with a sharp point and with a diameter small enough to fit the needle holder in the reproducing arm of the phonograph. A few hand lettered announcements on public boards and a little mouth to ear conversation brought us a few sales at the unbelievable price of ten for a dime! The needles were either long lasting or worthless because we did not get any reorders or any complaints.

            Was there fun involved in this enterprise? I thought it was funny when we had the cactus needles neatly arranged on the seat of a chair and Smokey, our old cat, jumped from the floor into the chair. He scattered our needles in all directions, but he evidently hit the point of a sharp one with his foot. He screamed about as loud as I ever heard a cat scream and ran from the shop before we could inspect his bodily damages. The episode didn’t seriously damage our needle supply!