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When I was a little girl I lived with my Grandparents. My Nana was a hobby seamstress and had a room specifically kept for her sewing and crafts, which she loved.

If I was lucky she would allow me in when she was working and I would be allowed to play with her Quality Street tins. We had emptied them long ago of the delicious sweets (chocolates and toffees eaten within a couple of days of Christmas even after promises that THIS year they would last longer) and were now rattly and full of buttons and bows.

Nana and I would spend hours in the local haberdashery, me running my hands over the silk and satins, whilst Nana would pick out new buttons of a myriad of shapes, sizes and colours. She had no use for them at that time but would buy them for future use….just in case!

My favourites were the larger round ones with the holes in a bobble on the back. These were often filled with stones of blue and red….diamond like, or even opals. If I was lucky, my alternate life as a princess would be spent with precious jewels all over my gowns as Nana would sew them onto my dressing up clothes. Whether they ended up on my dresses or not, or as eyes for poor one eyed teddies, or even more serious uses like actual clothes, Nana had hundreds.

Thankfully Nana’s buttons were fun and played with but there are some very serious button collectors. In the USA is a National Button Society where people study them and their history…and collect them since 1938.

Buttons ©Isabella F A Shores
Buttons ©Isabella F A Shores

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” 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 Elman’s 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.

Perhaps Gertrude was influenced by Otto C. Lightner, an entrepreneur who believed everyone should collect something. He had 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.

Collecting buttons soon became the number one hobby among women and number 3 overall (after coins and stamps) Money was scarce at the time and Gertrude Patterson came along at the right time with her collection. Before then buttons were a very important part of fashion accessories from the late 1800s through the 1920’s and people were cutting them off clothes saving them from the rag bin well before this. In fact, 18th century buttons featured designs by highly skilled artists and were not only worn by nobility but also the general population. Paintings on ivory, intricate enamel designs, even Wedgwood mounted in Boulton steel were the height of fashion.

So my Nana was not the first by any means to collect buttons. She was not the last either and buttons continue to this day to, not only be a fashion accessory from the finest designers through to being an old reused button on your sweater, but also to be the thing young children aim for when visiting Grandma, turning them into jewels or barter goods.

We would love to know if you also collect or know someone who does.

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Isabella FA Shores
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Isabella FA Shores

Founder at 1stAngel Arts
I live in Sale, Cheshire, England, and am happily sharing my life with a mental budgie, two Alsatian puppies, and a long-suffering, sculptor-boyfriend . . . not necessarily in that order. 🙂 Often accused of being an insufferable know it all, I often do, but more often do not.
Isabella FA Shores
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2 thoughts on “Buttons

  1. My Mum still has a button tin.

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