Every household has a button stash, whether the treasured contents are held in a bag, a jar, a tin or as in my mother’s case an old cigar box. In my store I sell buttons from an antique tin washbasin. The basin itself is not only a receptacle for buttons, but also for the dear and heartfelt memories that my customers share of their mother's stash.
These treasured boxes held not only the sewing supplies that you would expect, such as the buttons themselves, but snaps, hooks and eyes, buckles, sequins, beads, marbles, tin bells, wooden and plastic game pieces and more. The origins of the contents, items that no longer had a purpose in their original place, gained acceptance in these vessels of odd bits of this and that.
The button stash of your childhood household probably held such items, and yours probably does today. Often in my classes someone will bring in one of these boxes. I have never seen two stashes alike, though all owners share a universal promise to keep and retell the stories of the acquisition of each precious button.
This button “story lore” perhaps originated in Victorian England where young girls collected buttons and placed them on a “Charm String”. The goal of your “Charm String” was to obtain 999 buttons, the last button 1,000, coming from the man that would be your “prince charming”. I have also read that the last button obtained would assure that you would grow to be an old maid, but being a romantic I find the first version more appealing. Each button on the girl’s charm string had to be a “treasured beauty”, being unique or one of a kind to her string. These buttons were obtained by the owner preferably as a gift from a friend or relative, or found or traded with another collector. However obtained the buttons would have come to the owner with it’s own story, to be retold to her friends, family and later, to her own children.
Between the 1930’s and ‘40’s, the hay-day of plastic jewelry, celluloid and Bakelite buttons found there way off our clothing and into our jewelry boxes. The buttons themselves told a story about the effects and difficulties brought on by WWI and WWII. With the shortage of metal, and the restrictions placed on the fashion industries, designers added style and color to our wardrobes with some very creative thinking.
Buttons were clustered in groups on celluloid chains for necklaces or bracelets and attached to the chain by jump rings. Button bracelets were made by stitching the buttons to a wide elastic base or a stretchy hemp material; or strung on elastic cord and crocheted into a bracelet; or even simply strung on an elastic cord and knotted to form a bracelet.
Stashes from this era tend to be lively and unique due to the plastic materials that could be transformed into anything imaginable. “Realistic” buttons were created to boost morale during the depression, made to depict every day household objects. One thing to be aware of with such a collection is the material used to make the plastic itself has been found to have some longevity issues. Don’t keep the buttons stored in an airtight container; a faint odor from the formaldehyde will permeate the buttons. Celluloid buttons are rather susceptible to burning, and bugs because they are a cellulose product.
Buttons can be made from many types of materials, some being more popular in one era than the next. There are some wonderful books out that will help you identify, and research your collection. See Button Identification and Cleaning for some helpful hints. Have fun looking through your stash, enjoy the journey you may be surprised to find the variety in your collection as I did.