It was a late evening, company had finally left and I returned to my studio work area. Conversation had earlier turned to crafting, as it often does amongst some of our friends and family; unbeknown to myself, someone had rummaged through some of their things using my big work table for an overflow parking lot for their junk, looking for some old treasure or another. I had not paid attention, though I had put up a good appearance of it, as I had been busy showing off my own junk to our company. It is irritating, you know the feeling, especially when you are expecting to get a little something done, and find the time you have left will be used to undo some other person’s mess.
It wasn’t even ten seconds of huff and snit while moving small things, that a bowl of buttons became unrested at the moving of all these little treasures.
Perhaps forty or fifty buttons slipped out of a white glass bowl that is not usually a part of my things on my table. Falling buttons, making that little clack and ticking noise that only a button makes. Heavy buttons and light buttons quick ricky tickity click, on the table, and against each other, ta plinkity tic tic tic and then, silence. Something seemed to await my response.
I was stunned, totally taken back. Unexpected was the flood of emotions that overcame that silence and filled my ears. It felt like a cotton white muffle blocking out all other noise in the room. There on the table, were the buttons from my own childhood. How could this be, how could I remember them, how did I even know they were the same ones?
But there they were: One large black glass button with silver stripes lay on top of many smaller ones. I could smell my mother’s perfume as if she were in the room.
That button had sparked a memory from over 60 years ago. Lifting the black button I sniffed it to see if it were really emitting any scent. No, it was only in my memory, but why was it so clear I wondered? I separated out a few with a nearby letter opener, thinking how that movement reminded me of the pharmacy and the way they separate out pills, healing medicine, as if counting gold. A smaller rounded button with a scottish plaid pattern jolted me to remember – see my sister in a 50s style sweater, hand-knit and buttons searched for from the sparce stock of our little town’s five and dime; I had been with my mom as she looked for the final touch of a handmade gift for my sister.
This was one of the extra buttons from the card, and beyond my belief, there was a small shard of the card still single stitched to the button loop, the rest had been torn away. “We will only need six buttons and there will be two spare; I’ll stitch one into the inside corner for insurance, and the other we’ll stick in the button jar,” I heard her speak as if she were in the room. She had later torn off a single button and placed it into a large mason jar.
I sat there holding that very button. It was a very powerful moment to be sure. There were more buttons on the table than I could muster the patience to entertain, but I knew that this find had just become mine. My wife would protest, but these buttons were destined for the memory shelf.
As days passed and the buttons sat awaiting a new container, I was repeatedly amazed at the power of small memories. I have taken individual buttons and held them for my wife, or grown children and told entire stories about a button memory. My band uniform buttons, my father’s hunting jacket, my brother’s pearl white shirt buttons that were removed and re-sewn on more than half a dozen shirts as they wore out, one by one. “People would never think to do that these days,” I would remark, “but genuine mother of pearl buttons were a real dress up addition.” There, one mother of pearl button lay in the bowl, waiting for a new shirt as if it were ready to serve all over again.
It was also surprising to see the many shapes that seemed so normal back then. Oval, square, triangle, tubular, tapered at both ends, and then the holes, two hole, four hole, single hole looped back. Materials, my gosh, buttons have been made from every thinkable material it seems. But I loved the leather buttons woven in a four braid and attached with a leather lace, now that was a cool button! Yup, there were three small shirt buttons of leather there in the bowl.
I recalled the smooth indented glass button that I had rubbed in the sixth grade; I still remember sitting in class and rubbing it as I listened to the lessons. I found myself explaining to my children that I had only a few shirts and that it was not uncommon to wear a favorite shirt more than once a week for the entire school season.
A week after the great button discovery, my daughter came to visit with her 3 year old son and my 4 month old granddaughter. As I held the baby, she grabbed for my shirt button. Of course, and which baby has not done this? Buttons are one of the first attractions and memories of our children. Why I had not seen this before I’m not sure, but now it seems so obvious; I should have been collecting and scripting button memories all along.
Some things can be called back up to memory but many, if not most things are lost, just as my granddaughter will not be able to hold onto fleeting nibbles on buttons. But her mother will, because I now see an opportunity for a perfect memory gift. Past, present, and future buttons captured and contained. Stitched to the cuff of time with story threads, and recollections that can be shared by both the recipient of the gift and those who surround them in their life.
Originally buttons and button-like objects were used as ornaments and have been found in the Indus Valley Civilization dating back to circa 2800–2600 BC, and in Bronze Age sites in China (circa 2000–1500 BC), and Ancient Rome.
Some buttons were actually seals, rather than fasteners.
Functional buttons (like we still use today) with buttonholes for fastening or closing clothes appeared first in Germany in the 13th century. Soon they became widespread with the rise of snug-fitting garments in 13th- and 14th-century Europe.
Buttons can range from homemade wood to modern plastic, inexpensive buttons, or highly decorative and ornate buttons made of expensive and precious materials.
In some countries of our world, buttons are so highly revered, it is illegal to destroy a button.
They are historically an important part of the cultures of the West and Near-East, and are valued because of practical reasons, making them also valuable and lucrative.