Friday, May 28, 2010

Button Holing History

Last week I lost a button on my favorite wear-around-the-house shirt. Fortunately there was a spare sewn on the inside shirttail. I never thought of that button being a culprit of our culture of excess, but rather it seemed like a pretty good idea. An attentive manufacturer had saved me the time making a trip to the store hunting for a matching button. Of course when the shirt wears out, it'll get tossed out buttons and all.

Sewing on a button can be a challenge, trying to fit a sharp needle through two or four little holes, and some people are much better at it than others. After the replacement was made, I noticed several other buttons looked a bit stressed and may not last too many more visits through the washer and dryer experience before more threads let loose. When I mentioned my concern to my wife, she said not to worry because we have a "button box."

How many of us have a button box? Maybe a good number of us do, but those who don't may not have had grandparents who managed surviving the Great Depression bequeathing to some of us several of life's little lessons.

Sure enough, inside a round tin container that might have held a selection of candies from the 1940s, handed down through the family, resting quietly on a shelf in a linen closet was a collection of every size, color and style button imaginable. All I had to do was rummage around a bit and among the hundreds and hundreds of fasteners, I was sure to find a successful match.

A look inside a button box is to take a mental tour of your past. You might find a big black plastic button impressed with an anchor design that came from an old P-Coat; or a fancy colored thingy that could not possibly be used anywhere but where it was first intended; or small flat rounded pearl-like discs stamped from a river mussel shell.

There was no discarding a button back in the 1930s because it may be just the household item to make ends meet - both figuratively and literally. I wasn't there in those days but I heard the stories and experienced the values of those who did. Hence the reason we have a button box in our house. By the way, that shirt I mentioned that got the new button won't get discarded too soon. Another lesson we learned from our Depression-experienced folk, was that the old shirt must first be unceremoniously ripped apart to serve an indeterminable time as a dust rag. Maybe that's why the buttons got a final notice, since they'd have to be stripped to save the scratch marks they'd cause when dusting off the dining room table.

Interesting where you can find a little hidden personal history and especially when it’s so close to home. If you have a button box, maybe you'll find some of your history inside. Oh yes, if you see me wearing my comfortable shirt with the repaired button, it may look a bit worn, but I don't plan on creating a new dust rag any time soon.


  1. One evening, I brought my mother's button boxes to share with my sister, her daughters and granddaughters. I was amazed by how delighted even the youngest granddaughters were with the buttons from a previous era. We could just imagine some of the buttons on a 40s-era coat or a 50s-era dress.

  2. My maternal grandmother was a world-class recycler. Each year she made two new house dresses--the oldest dresses in her closet became aprons, the oldest aprons became sunbonnets and leftover scraps were turned into quilts every winter. I can look at one of those quilts and walk down the memory lane of my childhood dresses and those of my mother and sisters. Remember when moms and their daughters had matching dresses? Our's were lilac with white polka dots and rick rack. And yes, I have a button box--always have, always will.