It’s Not Just Sew, Sew

Buttons, Buttons

The old West had a shortage of everything except hard times and backbreaking work, that there was plenty of. Pioneer women took extra pains with all their belongings and to lose something as small as a button really was difficult to take.

Buttons have been around approximately 4,000 years with its history dating back to Egypt. Archeologists have unearthed them in ancient tombs and in archeological digs.

At first buttons were used entirely for decoration. Men and women both wore buttons to adorn themselves. King Louis XIV of France spent $600,000 a year on buttons and King Francis I once had 13,600 buttons sewn to a single coat. The First Duke of Buckingham had a suit and cloak covered in diamond buttons. Talk about extravagant.

From ancient times buttons have been fashioned from pearls, shells, glass, metal, wood, bone and antler, precious stones, porcelain, and leather among other materials. It appears that our ancestors made buttons from everything imaginable, but probably from what was available at the time where they lived. Buttons with images of angels on them dates back hundreds of years.

But buttons were not just for clothing. They could be found on purses, bracelets, belts, and shoes and still can today. Early buttons showed beautiful artistry. Artists filled their time painting portraits and scenery on them. Europe became so button crazy the church denounced them as “the devil’s snare,” mainly because of women’s buttoned-front dresses. Even the Puritans condemned buttons as sinful.

No one is quite sure when someone came along and fashioned the first buttonhole, but it was quite an accomplishment. Everyone jumped on the button wagon. It was so nice to able to make form-fitting garments that didn’t have to be secured with a belt or other device.

In the 1890’s, there were 53 button companies in Muscatine, Iowa earning it “The Pearl Button Capital of the World.” Over 4,000 men, women, and children were employed in the button business in that one town.

Sadly, decorated buttons have become a lost art. Today, most buttons are made from inexpensive plastic.

The National Button Society was formed in 1938. There are thousands of collectors today. People collect all kinds and shapes and some of the prices fetched for a single button is outrageous. Recently, a button was sold in auction for $850. People are serious about their buttons.

The Smithsonian Institution has an extensive button collection as do many other museums.

Did you know that March13-19 is National Button Week?

We all have buttons somewhere either in jars or in sewing baskets. I have a zip lock bag full of buttons that I’ve cut off clothes that I tossed in the rag bin. My grandkids love to play with them.

Do you have your stash of buttons? Can you imagine wearing a piece of clothing that has over 13,000 buttons sewn on it?

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Here in the Texas Panhandle, we do love our cowboys. There's just something about a man in a Stetson and jeans that makes my heart beat faster. I'm not much of a cook but I love to do genealogy and I'm a bit of a rock hound. I'm also a NY Times & USA Today bestselling author of historical western romance. You can contact me through my website and I'd love to connect with you on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and more. HAPPY READING!

16 thoughts on “It’s Not Just Sew, Sew”

  1. Thank you Linda for the intersting post. I had no idea that buttons had such a history! 🙂

  2. I learn something new every day. To think that the button was invented eons before the buttonhole! Fascinating blog, Linda.
    When I was a kid, in simpler times, we used to play a game called “Button, button, who’s got the button.” At a party or in school everybody stood in a circle with their hands together. One had a button. The person who was “it” had to guess who it was. Yes, I am older than dirt. And yes, I do have a button stash.

  3. When I was little, my Grandmother let me play with her button box and the buttons were my dolls. I would sort them into families with the bigger coat buttons being the parents and the smaller buttons being the children.
    I now have several jars of buttons, some that I inherited and some that I picked up at estate sales. I have no idea if any of them are worth anything. I just love looking at them and imagining the garments they were used on and the people that wore them. They bring back happy memories.
    What a fun and informative blog, Linda!

  4. Hi Linda, You always find such interesting topics! My mom kept a mish-mash of buttons in old “Sucrets” boxes. Remember those throat lozenges? The boxes were metal and the buttons rattled. Thanks for bringing back a lovely memory 🙂

  5. Fun post, Linda. I can remember my mother and grandmother both having large Mason jars full of buttons of every imaginable size and color. As a kid, I looked at that jar like it were filled with colorful candies. And when I was allowed to take it down and play with all the buttons? Heaven. My favorite part was simply dipping my hand in and letting the buttons sift through my fingers. Hearing the swishing sound and watching the cascade were soothing to me somehow. I wish I sewed enough to have a button jar of my own.

  6. Love buttons and finding just the right ones at antique shops and shows. I jazz up my jackets with new buttons I find.

    Thanks for a fun post.

    peace, Julie

  7. Very interesting. I could imagine that the pioneer women would have had a hard time if they did lose a button. Very interesting about the history of the button. I also have a small collection my mom gave me some buttons that she had and I had a friend bring me four beautiful buttons from Germany.

  8. National Button Week? Are you kidding me?
    Of course I knew.
    the family always gets together. We had turkey with all the trimmings as always.

    I just yesterday took down the button tree.

    Everyone else does this, right?
    tap tap tap

    Is this thing on???

  9. National Button week? Who knew?

    My button tree has been down for awhile. But this is very interesting. I thought that the Puritans were weird by saying buttons were sinful?
    Why? Or am I just dense?

  10. I didn’t realize people collected buttons until about 30 years ago. We were at a country house auction and a lot of 4 boxes came up for bid along with a book. There was a small hat box, a shoe box, and a couple smaller boxes. The auctioneer (actually the assistant) opened the top box which just had old, plain buttons from coat, etc. Don’t know why I bid, but no one was interested and I got the lot for about $6. The book was on button collecting and was printed in the 1940’s, which is probably when the buttons were collected. When I opened the hat box, it had cards of buttons, already sorted. There were jets, carnival glass, pearl, etc. The shoe box had little boxes of sorted buttons. Back then, just one of the carnival glass buttons was worth about $25. I knew the auctioneer and showed him what was in the boxes after the auction. He wasn’t happy that the assistant hadn’t checked the boxes better, but congratulated my good luck for “picking plums.”
    I read the little book that came with the boxes and learned much about buttons in the following weeks. When we finish renovating our house, I’ll unpack them and with the internet do some serious searching to see just what I have. I plan to frame some of them and hang them in my sewing room. Would love to find some of the really old porcelain and portrait buttons, but there are none in my boxes. I also have several jars of buttons from both of my grandmothers plus the ones I have saved over the years.

  11. Very interesting post, Linda. I guess this is why there were so many button drummers traveling from place to place in the old west.

    I’ve always taken a ribbing from non-collectors about my button box. Actually, it’s a huge round tin with a lid, and it’s very old. The paint is mostly gone and its got quite a few dints. But it contains buttons of every size and description. Lost a button? We could probably find a matching replacement in my button box. I started hanging on to buttons when I was a teenager and we were required to sew a garment in home ec. Like Patricia, I acquired my oldest and most interesting buttons at the estate auction of an elderly lady who’d–evidently–been collecting for years.

    Thanks for the interesting post!

  12. Awesome post, Linda. My gramma left me a giant stash of antique buttons that I gave away to the goodwill during a housecleaning binge years ago. I have since regretted it many times. I have her antique bedroom set in our guestroom and recently bought a bag of pretty antique buttons to set in one of her old bowls, just for pretty.

    Great post! oxoxox

  13. Linda,this button story really made my mind think back to the past. I have my grandmothers old sewing machine. After reading the story I went and looked and YES, the drawers are full of thread and buttons. I remember saving buttons for years and then wondered why I was saving them. I am sure it was because my grandmothers and mother sewed and would save buttons. Thanks for your post.

  14. Excellent post, Linda. I collect buttons from family members. I have a jar from both of my husband’s grandmothers, plus some from GGG. My dear German grandma never kept things so mundane as buttons. lol

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