A friend was sitting at my kitchen table when her eye was caught by a half gallon jar of pearly white buttons sitting near my computer.

She said, “Well, I know where to come if I need a button.” She was kidding, because although these were real buttons, they were mainly for decoration, reflecting light in a dark corner, appealing to my need for art, reminding me of what it was like to run my fingers through a jar full of buttons at Aunt Belle’s house.

I responded by pointing out my nearby button lamp, a tall 2-quart Mason jar filled with brightly colored buttons and wired for electricity. I didn’t mention the jar of buttons in my bedroom closet, nor the small drawer full of weird buttons that I use for scrapbooking.

I am not a button collector. But I do admire buttons and hang on to special ones. I am not a member of the Peach State Button Society that meets once a month in Atlanta, though I have visited their website.

I keep a button jar in my closet because my mother did. Aunt Belle kept her button jars in her sewing room. All of us women of a certain age keep button jars. As my friend had noted in her comment, sometimes you need a button.

But the point of my button jar is not just to save a button that I might need, but to follow family traditions. I was taught never to throw away a button. If I have to tear up one of my husband’s old flannel shirts to make soft furniture polishing rags, I cut off the buttons first. Very recently, I clipped three diminutive buttons from the placket of a night gown that had been washed so many times it had become transparent and holey. Without buttons, it tore quickly into more rags.

One of my earliest memories is sitting at Aunt Belle’s red and white enamel table sorting the buttons that she had left over from her sewing projects. She would pour a pile of buttons into the center of the table, and then always teaching, Aunt Belle would ask us how they might best be sorted? We knew color and size, but she pointed out also, special buttons, wood, leather, metal. And she also liked to keep buttons that might be covered or recovered in a separate jar. She also kept shoeboxes full of buttons still on their cards. If you are a designer, you buy attractive buttons when you see them, and you change your mind about which buttons will perfectly enhance an outfit.

As happens in a connected universe, a day after my friend, Ellen, got me to thinking about buttons, another friend, Pam, from far away, sent me a blog post which was —serendipitously — about buttons. Or is the universe connected by our minds?

I don’t know when I first subscribed to Pamela Toler’s blog, History in the Margins, but I keep reading it, because she is a like-minded woman who stops to read every roadside marker she passes, and thinks the perfect vacation includes visiting tiny obscure museums, as well as the homes of authors and other famous and semi-famous people.

Last week she shared a visit to a button-making museum in Iowa. While I knew that some buttons had been carved from shells, I hadn’t known that freshwater mussels along the upper Mississippi started a thriving button making industry in the area. But as often happens, the mussels were over collected and the local industries failed.

And like reading roadside markers and getting lost in the library stacks, I went from one web article to another, collecting interesting facts about buttons:

Buttons were first decorative items that the rich used like brooches to fasten capes, etc. Buttons were “functional jewelry.”

Buttons can be art, with carved designs or tiny enamel paintings.

Buttons were sometimes hollowed out and filled with contraband. As late as 2009 someone tried to smuggle heroin in hollow buttons.

King Francis I of France had an outfit that sported over 1,000 gold buttons.

Rich men often snipped off the gold buttons to pay off gambling debts when they ran out of money in card games. I already knew this fact from my addiction to Regency novels.

Buttons changed the shape of clothing, because they allowed fabric to be fitted to the natural curves of a body.

As a writer and teacher, I eventually got caught up in articles about buttons as metaphors in our language from “buttoned up” people to “cute as a button.” Today we push each others’ emotional buttons as well as virtual buttons on our phone screens.

I love buttons!

If you want to learn more about the history of buttons, visit Pamela Toler’s blog HistoryintheMargins.com. Or at http://www.pameladtoler.com/.

Columnist Cheryl Hilderbrand is a former educator and a member of the Jackson-Butts County Library Board of Trustees. Email her at cherrylmach@gmail.com.

Managing Editor

Michael Davis has been the editor of the Jackson Progress-Argus since 2010. He previously worked as an editor and reporter for the Henry Daily Herald and Clayton News-Daily.

Advertisement