It was a tradition in frugal households of time past to snip the buttons from no longer useful clothing that was destined for the ragbag. Those buttons were collected in what was known as a button box, although the box could be a cigar box, tin, or jar. Peer into any family’s button box, perhaps saved for sentimental value, and a treasure trove of memories, even history awaits.
Surely the simple phrases or idioms of improbability as they might be referred to – “she is cute as a button,” “time to hit the pause button,” “he has pushed my buttons,” the alarm clock “snooze button,” our phone’s “mute button,” our very human “belly button,” and our living in a “push-button world,” do allude to the ubiquitous round fasteners that give us closure or perhaps mindful pause.
Of course very few of these expressions are really buttons at all but no matter, buttons have made their way into our lives from times ancient to modern-day life.
A button as artifact whether functional fastener or as celebratory ornamentation reveals much about who we are culturally, what time frame we live in, even economic status. Buttons have been made of every metal, from gold to sliver to brass, copper and steel, from organic materials such as sea shells, ivory, horn and wood, from rubber and of course from today’s mass-produced plastics.
Many buttons are highly prized and collectible. Commemorative clothing buttons from historical political campaigns, elaborately painted or with a stamped design beginning with George Washington’s Inaugural and from Abraham Lincoln’s life and death are museum worthy.
A sewer’s handed down button box, with every button saved, is much like a store of memories. There may be tiny pearl buttons that once adorned a woman’s fashionable gloves, a hat, or a little girl’s dress, plain buttons on a man’s shirt or large buttons that may have kept a heavy coat closed. Cherished and beautiful brass buttons from a military uniform may reside in that button box. There may even be buttons saved from long gone furniture cushions.
And yet all keep silent now as they are separated from their original purpose but ever sentinels to what once was.
Visit the National Button Society website for an extensive look into the preservation and education of clothing buttons.
Sew happy, sew inspired.