Sunday, January 4, 2009

Button...button...who's got the button?

The new movie out, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” set me off this week. I am sure many of you wonder how my mind works…yeah, so do I! But, you might want to pour a cup of coffee…or brew a cup of tea…or perhaps a martini…this is a long one…too many fascinating twists…the button may be small, but its tale is large!

So, history lesson for the week (although I teach composition, my first love was history)… a functional button, made of stone, was found in Turkey at a site dated to 10,500 BC (no Joann Fabrics there, I bet!) Then archaeological digs in China and Rome uncovered button-like objects that were used as ornaments rather than fasteners. It appears clothes were held together with pins and belts.

At some point the idea of running thread through these items came into play, and the button as we know it today made its debut around 1200 in Europe. The Crusaders picked up the idea from the Turks and Mongols, and, as clothing was starting to become form fitting, the button and loop worked better than a pin.

The French, fashion mavens even in the Dark Ages, established a Button Makers Guild in 1250. The word button appeared and stems from either the French bouton for bud or bouter to push. The button became a work of art created for the aristocracy, and laws were passed prohibiting the peasants from buying the buttons…which they really could not afford anyway…but they were allowed thread or cloth covered buttons only. So, the button became the Prada of the 13th century.

Europe became so button crazy that the Church denounced them as 'the devil's snare', referring to the ladies in their button-fronted dresses. So many buttons adorned clothes that professional dressers were hired to assist. A 1520 report describes a meeting where King Francis I of France, his clothing bedecked with some 13,600 buttons, met King Henry VIII of England, similarly weighed down with buttons. (Maybe that is why Henry had so many wives…could not find one to sew on a button!!!)

The Puritans condemned the button in the 16th century, and you know how fashionable their clothes looked! So, as the numbers of buttons diminished, the button makers turned to their high artistry again, using gold, ivory, and diamonds. They hand painted portraits and scenes on buttons.
Louis XIV adored his buttons and returned to the excesses of previous ages, but he also encouraged others by having his army wear silver-colored bone buttons on their tunics.

In the 17th century, a button war broke out in France between the tailors and the button makers. The tailors were using the thread buttons they created, and the artisan button makers protested. A law was passed that fined the tailors, but it is unclear of the extent of its enforcement.

Napoleon was responsible for the buttons on sleeves, and during this time the double breasted jacket came into vogue. When the outside of the jacket was soiled, the wearer just had to unbutton it and place the soiled surface on the inside then button the clean side outermost. Who knew?

Once buttons entered mass production, the landscape changed, but everyone still kept a button box. The pearl button has a fun story…that of the Pearly Kings and Queens of London. According to one account, the Pearlies derived from London cockneys who sewed pearl buttons onto their clothing. An orphan named Henry Croft collected any pearl buttons that fell off clothes and covered his clothing with them. Another story claims that in the 1880s a cargo of Japanese pearl buttons was salvaged from the River Thames, but in true British spirit, the Pearly Monarchy lives on today!
The most popular button of the 19th Century, however, was the black glass button. This was made for the masses in response to Queen Victoria's demand for mourning buttons following the death of Prince Albert. (Guess they kept the buttons in the can…)
By the turn of the 20th Century, picture and novelty buttons were very much the fashion. They no longer needed to be hand-painted when they could have scenes printed onto them, and molding allowed shapes and sizes, and it was perhaps this that began the trend for collecting buttons for their own sake.

From the National Button Society’s web site, I found a fascinating story. Listening to the radio was a favorite activity during the Great Depression of the 1930’s. Dave Elman, a former Chautauqua performer and vaudeville actor, launched a radio show called "Hobby Lobby" (yepper…those of you in the Midwest are familiar with that label!) in October of 1937. Elman’s show featured one hobby each week, with an offer of a free trip to New York City for the person with an unusual or particularly interesting hobby. In 1938, Gertrude Patterson brought to his show her passion for collecting buttons, a hobby just about anybody could afford during those lean times, and a national search of attics, basements and sewing rooms commenced.

Otto C. Lightner, an entrepreneur who believed everyone should collect something, founded Hobbies magazine in the 1920's and in 1938 organized a hobby show at the Hotel Sherman in Chicago. Button collectors contributed to the show and later that year they formed the National Button Society, hosting their own show in Chicago in 1939. Many state and local button clubs were established during the 1940's, and many of those clubs sponsored their own button shows.

There are many who craft today with has particularly reached a fine art with buttons as a base. I have a friend who fashioned pins from buttons, and below is a heart pin that I bought decades ago...I love blimps!

Erica at makes some wonderful bracelets from old buttons...I have none in stock right now, but here is a current offering from her web site...

I am sure buttons still find their way into jars or tins…many outfits come with extra buttons…however, in the word button is BUT…and the question is…but how many of you are back to using the pin to hold that button on? Just like the ancient civilizations taught us!

So, by now you are ready for me to button my lip…even if you think my puns are cute as a button…so I shall button it up!


Anonymous said...

Hi Susan,
I love buttons, so I really enjoyed this week's post. Love the button pictures too. Thanks.

Patricia said...

I look forward to your S&T lectures every week. Another good one, who ever thought they were so rich in history? I love thinking about the person who invents these lowly items we take so for granted. Their peers must have thought they were completely crazy, cut a hole in a piece of clothing so you can push what through it??? Thanks for doing all this research all the time, Susan.
Patricia Rose-A Potpourri of Fabric, Fragrance and Findings

Anonymous said...

Once Again a Great Read! I only hope no one gives me a button next year for Christmas!!
Huggs, Nancy

Noelle Garrett Designs said...

Susan, wonderful post as always. I love buttons and was lucky to inherit a huge old box of them from my grandma. She was a seamstress beginning in the 1920's so it is filled with some amazing buttons. For me I like both simple and the really ornate such as you have pictured. Thanks for sharing.

Miniature Patisserie Chef said...


Happy new year! What a great post on buttons. I didn't know there was so much history in it.
Have a great week ahead!

Pei Li

gail said...

Hi Susan,,, who would have thunk it?? LOL Great post and never worry about having to button your lips around here. We love the history lessons! hugs, gail
PS: I have not forgot about the chain you sent me a photo of. I am still on the look out:)

Lilli Blue said...

This was a lovely post. I enjoy your blog every week. I have a great collection of buttons. I belong to a group of women who swap clothing. They always tease me because I will take a garment just for the buttons.
Great buttons can change an outfit from so so to wonderful.
A basic white shirt with colored buttons is a new shirt. Thanks!Lilli

Deb said...

Hi Susan.....loved your post about buttons, but I have to say that I love Benjamin Button the most! Hope you have a great week. :)


Meadow Street said...

What a great post!! I love your writing. I wish I could take one of your classes! Love all the pictures, your shop is dreamy!!

Just a bed of roses said...

Fascinating and funny too...always love your lectures!

Susie said...

Hi Susan! I never met a button I didn't love and have been collecting them for a lifetime. To me they tell stories of fashion through the years. Thanks for another top notch s&t.
The Polka Dot Rose

Angel Heart Designs said...

OM goodness...What a wonderful learning experience n great cool..
I LOVE buttons and all of a sudden they are my best sellers for the past couple of months! I just started making heart ones too! very fun..have a wonderful week n I just love S&T
Cindy :)

Carolee Crafts said...

Hi Susan

Thank you for your informative post as always you have put effort into your stories and they are a joy to read.

Anonymous said...


Another fasinating post!

Love those buttons.


Cottage Flair said...

LOVED it! I am a button collector, mostly vintage but some that are just plain fun. I buy them just to look at! I learn so much from you every week!

Unknown said...

Hi Susan,

Excellent Show and Tell! Always interesting! Love the buttons and photos. So glad I stopped by. Also Happy 2009!
Janet's Creative Pillows

Michelle May-The Raspberry Rabbits said...

Susan this was facinating! Hand painted glass buttons are my true favorite. They are harder and harder to find these days. Such little works of art.
Thanks again for a wonderful lesson.
bunny kisses,

cathy said...

Another fascinating history lesson!
I have always loved buttons. One of my fondest memories is playing in my grandmother's button box. I still like buttons. I often make specialty buttons for needlework artists,

Eileen & Karen said...

Susan, What a wealth of information you are! I love vintage buttons and using them in our crafts. You should see the stock we have!

Marge of Emmas Nook and Granny said...

Ah, Susan, I can always count on you for a good read!