Into the Button Jar

24th May 2019

Written by Nancy Williams

It almost goes without saying that every stitcher has a button jar somewhere. I remember being a small child and running my hands through my Grandmother’s button collection. She used to keep it in an old Quality Street chocolate tin and the sound of the buttons falling against each other still makes me nostalgic. Now, my five-year-old daughter loves plunging her hands into my button collection and letting the buttons cascade from her fingers. Why do we keep them? Is it practical, emotional, or is there any value in that jar?

Buttons by emerald jade (source)

Buttons have been used to decorate clothing for 5,000 years, while their practical use as a fastening has been confidently dated back to 13th Century Germany. Buttons were originally made out of almost anything – bone, shell, glass, ceramic, metal and stone. As synthetic materials were developed, manufacturers made buttons from Bakelite, celluloid or any other form of hard plastic. And all the while they’ve been painted, moulded, stitched over or dyed to complement every fabric imaginable.

It was only in the 1930s that button collecting became a recognised hobby in the US. According to the National Button Society, founded in 1938, the first person to suggest it was a lady named Gertrude Patterson who answered a call from radio show presenter Dave Elman to introduce their unusual or interesting hobby to the country. It was during the Great Depression, so Gertrude’s idea represented an affordable and enjoyable pastime.

In no time, “a national search of attics, basements and sewing rooms commenced.”

Nowadays, sought after buttons can fetch USD$75-$200. Military buttons, buttons with painted portraits, or buttons verifiably originating from celebrities or sports stars are the most highly prized. But like anything, if someone is collecting it and it is rare enough, it will immediately have value.

Military buttons – Auckland Museum (image credit)

However, even if you aren’t seeking monetary reward, sifting through an old button jar can offer a wealth of memories. This button might have fallen off your mother’s baby jacket. That one might have come from your grandfather’s first suit. And that one over there might have been picked up on the day your husband proposed. So much meaning can arise from such a small, utilitarian item.

Vitavia (image credit)

So, next time you start digging through your button jar to find the perfect button for the centre of a biscornu, take a moment to remember where they all came from and where they might be headed in the future. Most of us are button collectors just as we are memory collectors. I would suggest that they are one and the same thing.

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