A little bit of history

I’ve got Canada in my pocket
a little bit of history
a penny and a nickel and a quarter and a dime mean a lot to you and me…

Oops, sorry. Channeling the children’s lit (or in this case, songs) again there.

The Box

The Box

Sometime in the early seventies, as I understand it, my mother attended the auction of the estate of an elderly relative. One of the things she bought was an old wooden box full of buttons, which had belonged to the wife of this elderly relative, my grandmother’s great aunt (great-grandmother’s aunt?)
Even at this time, the little stash was “vintage”—the newest buttons were probably added sometime in the 40s, and most of the collection dates to much earlier. Put it this way: although there are plastic buttons, the majority of the collection is shell, metal, horn, and even glass. There are a lot of boot buttons—the tiny toggle buttons you see on Victorian and Edwardian women’s footwear.

My mother and Syo hard at work

My mother and Syo hard at work

Although I’ve been familiar with this collection all my life, when we went to visit my mother this weekend she had pulled it out, so I got the chance to document some of it for your (I hope) viewing pleasure. We also, as one must when playing with button stashes, did some sorting, as well as some unraveling of matted clumps of button-groups. Unfortunately my camera battery was dying, so I didn’t get to take as many photos as I would have liked, but I hope I got most of the highlights. Fortunately, my mom’s checked tablecloth is a perfect 1/4″ grid for scale. 🙂

Buttons and jewelry

A wide assortment

Everything from giant coat buttons to tiny shell buttons are represented. There are a lot of fabric-covered buttons, including some “homemade” ones which are just regular buttons with fabric sewn around.


Assorted buttons

More doodads

Assorted not-buttons

There are also a number of inclusions of buckles, garter clips, screws and other bits of hardware, and even two little spigots.


Shell, cloth, plastic

Since there are SUCH a lot of photos, I’ll leave you to peruse the flickr gallery for the most part.

The Box

Halfway through. Chalk drawing on the box courtesy of me, aged 3 or 4.

I love pawing through this stash, but I don’t think I could ever actually bring myself to take anything out of it. To me (and I’m known to be sentimental about such matters, so your mileage may vary) this collection has gone from stash (to be used) to time-capsule, to be cherished, curated, and preserved for future generations. I suppose realistically there isn’t a huge amount of historical data in a bunch of buttons—or is there? Considering that most of these buttons were probably cut off clothing on its way to the rag bin, perhaps you could perform some kind of an analysis—proportions of shirt buttons to boot buttons to coat buttons? Dating the various buttons would be interesting, though I don’t know if carbon-dating is feasible at this age (it would work on the wood and horn buttons, potentially. Is there enough carbon residue in shell?). Stylistic dating would probably be more useful. Isotope studies on the shells could probably shed light on their origin, and maybe highlight trade/manufacturing pathways in the early 20th century.

… okay, pulling back from the brink of madness. What would you do with a treasure trove like this? 🙂



Filed under Sewing

11 responses to “A little bit of history

  1. Wow what a treasure chest!! I can’t believe you’re not
    using these – I’d kill to get my hands on those sets all threaded
    together! I pulled a few such sets from my mom’s button tin a few
    years ago (mostly 70-80s plastic buttons) and I’ve used nearly all
    the sets by now. It’s just the odd buttons I have a hard time
    finding uses for…

  2. Dei

    I used them. No question.

  3. Corinne

    What a great collection! I would do as you are, bring them out, study them, and save them. I have seen mini-collections mounted in shadow boxes, very nice.

  4. I would dive into it.
    I am a lucky girl as my grand ma has a lot of treasures! She has been a seamstress since the late 40’s, and she has old fabrics, buttons, and various bits and pieces. As she has arthrosis (right English word?) in her fingers, she does not sew anymore, and I am allowed to bring some things home! The nicest ones are 3 meters of red wild silk, and 2 meters of silk that belonged to my grand grand ma… I haven’t dared using them yet though…

  5. CGCouture

    My grandma has this cool shadow-box thing with buttons made up into the shape of a Christmas tree–it has lights and everything, and it is very pretty. You could do something like that–especially with the rhinestone/mother of pearl type buttons that maybe don’t have a match. The matched ones I’d probably use on something special. 🙂

  6. Diplomacy. Use for projects deemed worthy, but save one of each for the time capsule.

  7. I would dive in and use them! Keeping in mind that there are so many buttons that you’ll still have a nice hoard. When the garment is worn out you can put the buttons back in the box 🙂

  8. The Mom

    Thanks for the expose on the button-box & its contents. It is interesting to read the comments. The ‘shadow-box’ idea is intriguing. Coming from a background in archaeology, local history research & genealogy research, I am conflicted. This family came to the area as pioneer farmers about 1900. They had 2 small boys. I did not know them, although I recall my grandmother & mother referring to them by name. Doing family genealogy has introduced me to them, and how they fit into the family framework, and this button box adds some physicality to the ‘names-on-the-page’; how did they live, what did they wear? And, like artifacts from an archaeological site, should the collection be kept intact, in case someone wants to do more research in the future? On the other hand, the round silver-coloured metal buttons (possibly off a woman’s jacket) would look stunning on the little purple-velvet, military-inspired blazer from VV, better than the plastic ones it came with, but when I tire of it, would I replace the nice buttons with run-of-the-mill buttons before I donate it (the jacket) back to charity? And I am tempted to use the lapel pins (the ‘elk-head’ stud…, does it mean than one of the males in the family was affiliated with the ‘Elks’ organization?). So many questions????

  9. Something to play with and admire and sort. Beautiful collection of memories.

  10. Sandra England

    You are an artist with the sewing machine. Keep it up! I can’t wait to see what new creations you come up with. The interview with your mom was great.
    Cheers, Sandra

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