Button, Button…

Just a few of the choices. (All pictures by Marylin Warner)

Need a button?  Here are just a few of the choices. (All pictures by Marylin Warner)

Primitive men and women made “buttons” from bones, thorns and sinew to hold animal skins together. Greeks and Romans added metal, horns and seashells to the mix, and later used button fasteners to identify royalty and military rank. In 1620, the first Duke of Buckingham had a suit and cloak covered in diamond buttons used only as decoration.

When my grandmother finished passing down clothing from her oldest child to the youngest, before she cut the fabric into quilt-sized pieces, she saved all the buttons. My mother had a wooden box filled with hundreds of buttons of all colors and sizes. She could always find a substitute button to quickly sew onto any piece of clothing, and my first sewing lesson was practicing with buttons and scraps of fabric.  Mom used buttons for other purposes, too.

To teach children to count or learn colors, she’d spread out buttons on the table and let them find 5 yellow or 8 blue or 11 green. To keep her daughter and her friends busy on a rainy afternoon, she let them make bracelets by stringing buttons they chose from the box, or decorate plain picture frames by gluing on designs with the buttons.

Button, button, who’s got the button? Cute as a button. Button your lip. In-y or out-y belly button. Right on the button. Push someone’s button. Buttons come in all expressions as well as numerous sizes, shapes, colors…and memories. November 16 is Button Day. Founded in 1938, the National Button Society celebrates collecting, preserving, trading, displaying and honoring all kinds of buttons.

In his poem “Picture Puzzle Pieces,” Shel Silverstein reminds us to look closely, with open eyes and minds, to appreciate the possibilities of small details. He finds a picture puzzle piece on the sidewalk, soaking in the rain. It could be almost anything, including “…it might be a button of blue on the coat of the woman who lived in the shoe…”

Sometimes it’s the little, simple things that nudge our memories and touch our hearts. Never underestimate the power of a button.

1950s collector "accent" buttons: Mother-of-Pearl, pottery, wood, brass, etc.

1950s collector “accent” buttons: Mother-of-Pearl, pottery, wood, brass, etc.


Kids' fun buttons.

Kids’ fun buttons.

5" tall Christmas ornament.

5″ tall Christmas ornament.



Filed under art, autumn lessons, Dementia/Alzheimer's, just doing the best we can, kindergarten lessons about life, making a difference, memories for great-grandchildren, sewing

59 responses to “Button, Button…

  1. Oh, I am so pleased to learn about National Button Day. A button activity will be wonderful for my mother to do. She has a great button jar.

    • Before my mom’s dementia, Gallivanta, she could got through the buttons and tell where she got the buttons or what outfit they were on, etc. It’s a terrific activity to do with you mom, and I hope she shares some good stories.

  2. juliabarrett

    I know many people who have wonderful button collections. I’m envious! They are so fun and evocative. Always wonder from where a particular button comes.

    • My mom had several buttons made from old coins, but now we can’t find them anywhere, Julia. They were distinct, and I wonder if Mom might remember them even now if we could locate them.
      Buttons really can be special. I have a friend from high school whose father was buried wearing a special suit because it had leather buttons that his mother had sewn on it for him. Some things have such powerful memories and emotions connected to them.

  3. I love buttons and have a box of them in my house. You have a wonderful button collection . One of my favorite pieces of jewelry was a bracelet made from buttons by an African woman .
    Thank you Marylin for another thoughtful post.

  4. I’m glad you enjoyed it, Gerlinde. It sounds like you have a special button keepsake, too, with your bracelet made by the African woman. I think it’s the handmade items that mean the most to us and create lasting memories.

  5. There’s long been a tradition to save buttons for garments ‘no longer fit for purpose’ Worldwide it seems. Even I have an inherited button jar somewhere…..now if only I knew how to sew.
    xxx Massive Hugs Marylin xxx

    • I like that tradition, David. Even if you don’t want to learn to sew 😉 think of the fun Reuben would have learning colors and counting. Just don’t let him put them in his mouth; little kids are always tempted to taste buttons. I don’t know why, but I suspect it’s not a good thing.
      Massive hugs to you, too!

  6. Don

    My old Grandmother had an old cake tin that she kept filled with every type and colour of button. I used to love the feeling of dipping my hand in to the tin and feeling the buttons fall through my fingers. I think she could have started her own button shop with the stocks she had. Thanks for the memory Marylin.

    • Oh, I know that feeling, Don, digging through the mound of buttons and letting them fall through my fingers. Once–only once–I tossed handfuls into the air, too. Picking them up all around the room was not as much fun. 🙂
      Buttons open the way for many memories.

  7. My grandmother and my mom had a button box. It was fun to look through all the different buttons. A nice memory.

    • Darlene, I think your grandmother, Don’s and mine could have all joined together and opened a business with all their buttons! And the three of us could sit together over lunch and share our memories. 🙂

  8. My mum had a button box too. I wonder how many people keep one now. I like the Xmas tree buttons – lots of fun.

    • From the sounds of it, Andrew, many people have tin cans and boxes filled with buttons from their childhoods. It’s hard to give away or throw away something that can nudge so many memories!
      I love the Xmas tree with button ornaments, too. I have it hanging in our guest room year-round, not just at the holidays.

  9. This reminded me of my mother. She was a wonderful housekeeper but detested sewing on buttons.
    We were always pleased when it was our annual two-week holiday at the seaside, because mum would gather our pj’s and shirts and sew on all the missing buttons.
    It wouldn’t do to go to the boarding house with missing buttons!
    Mum taught us to cook, clean, iron etc. But never made us sew on our own buttons.
    Thanks for starting the memory from your button box.

    • Hey, the buttons are nothing compared to your mom teaching you guys to cook, clean, and iron, Rod. Yea! for your mom. 🙂
      Buttons and the tins and boxes storing them really trigger more memories than I every imagined!

  10. Claudia

    Ah my mother had a button box too, as did I for years. Running fingers through button is a sensual memory I won’t forget. One year for Christmas I made those exact trees with buttons! I bought some elk buttons once for use on some future knitting project…it never materialized!

    • Claudia, I’m still laughing at the elk buttons you never used on the knitting project. I did the same thing with bear buttons…and little pig buttons. They were so cute that I couldn’t resist them, but I never used them on anything! 😉

  11. As you can imagine, my family’s Swiss-German thrift extended to buttons too. My grandmas both had button boxes, my mother surely had one, and I have one too.

    Your post inspired me to pull out the drawer of buttons in my rectangular gadget that has about a dozen pull out drawers encasing elastic, binding, and a tape measure. Yup! The buttons are there, some helping me visualize outfits that have long since been recycled. I just can’t seem to throw away buttons, even those I never use, the ones that come in little plastic pockets attached to just-bought clothing.

    Great post – I especially enjoyed the kid button assortment!

    • This is so much fun, Marian, hearing everyone’s similar stories. No matter where our grandmothers and mothers are from, it seems they were frugal and saved buttons…and we were the lucky recipients! 🙂

  12. Marylin, I love buttons too! You brought wonderful memories to mind. My grandmother and I collected buttons too. The 1950 ones in particular. I’ve also drawn designs with buttons. Teaching children to count and/or learn their colors with buttons is a super idea. Did you make the quilted button tree? Super post again. 🙂

    • Hi, Tracy. That little tree ornament in the picture was a gift, but of course once I saw it, I began making more as stocking stuffers and hostess gifts.
      With your wonderful talent for detail, I’m not at all surprised you’ve drawn designs with buttons!

  13. Marylin, You are brilliant when it comes to subject matter! I too love buttons! I have an old Bell jar full of them. I always save the extra buttons that come on our clothing as well. They have come in handy for numerous projects over the years – like 100th day of school projects, etc.
    Have a wonderful weekend my friend! XO

    • Robyn, as soon as you said 100th day school projects, I remembered doing the same thing! This is so much fun, nudging each other’s memories with ours. Never underestimate the power of buttons! 😉

  14. A National Button Society…who knew? I obviously didn’t. 🙂 I love the colorful kids buttons, Marylin. I have a slew of buttons I’ve saved from new clothing I’ve purchased. I’m not sure why I save them…I can’t sew a button for the life of me. I don’t have the patience, nor the eyesight, to thread the needle.

    • You’re in for a new experience, Jill. Did you know that you can buy cards of multiple needles–already threaded–so now you can learn to sew on buttons! 😉 My first hand-sewing learning project was sewing on projects. My first mistake was practicing while I watched TV, and I sewed the button onto the fabric, but also onto the hem of my shirt, too! 🙂

  15. Hi Marylin, my favorite button piece of jewelry was a Christmas bracelet I bought years ago at a craft fair. There were many holiday buttons sewn to a braided bracelet and it had a loop for a clasp. It has stretched out over the years and one of the buttons is chipped, but I try to wear it at least once per holiday season.
    Thank you for a delightful post! Joanne

  16. calvin

    Ah the button tin. What a treasure trove of stories -a family heirloom.

    And to connect to this post Marylin I offer this, http://www.beyondplumcreek.com/shtufffs/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/we-all-shone-back-then.jpg

    The clothes are gone, but my Mother still has the buttons.

  17. Oh, Calvin, those pictures are a delight! Absolutely precious. And I love that your mother kept the buttons even after you’d all outgrown the clothes!
    Button tins (and wooden boxes) really are heirlooms.

  18. Yes, Mum had a button box too. It must have been born from the ‘make do and mend’ attitude from the Second World War. Having said that, I now have my own button tin – just in case.

    • Just in case is right, Jenny. At this rate, people everywhere might at some point end up trading buttons for food or medicine.
      In my mom’s case, I think the Great Depression locked in the values of mending, making do, doing without, etc.

  19. Jim

    Fun blog post! Who would guess the little ole button would have such a rich and meaningful history. I usually don’t pay a lot of attention to buttons until I lose one and need your help with a replacement. 🙂

    • And with all those cute kids’ buttons, think how we could make your hiking and off-roading clothes take on new life, honey! Again, I remind you to never underestimate the power of buttons. 🙂

  20. Nancy Parker Brummett

    Buttons are a great reminder that something can be very useful and very simple at the same time! Great post, Marylin.

  21. Thanks, Nancy. Buttons are useful for so many things (like teaching kids colors or how to count), but I also remember drawing pictures or writing little stories about the people who wore certain buttons. Hmm…maybe I should try that now. 🙂

  22. ‘Never underestimate the power of a button.’ Oh Marylin, I love that line, and it is so true! My dear Granny had a button tin, my mother still has and so do I! What would we do without our buttons? I loved buying cute buttons when I made my daughter’s dresses, but other than that, I rarely sew buttons on these days, but will never give up my button tin 🙂 Love your photos. And National Button Day? I just love how you share all these wondeful celebrations with us. But…on a sober note, I feel compelled to share this with you. I immediately thought of a day back in September when I visited a place in France called Oradour-Sur-Glane (I will post about it at the appropriate time, it’s a heavy post…). It’s a village in France that is left today in its original state as a memorial to all those who were brutally murdered one afternoon just after D Day in 1945, by the SS. There is a collection of artifacts found from that day (the village was torched), now placed carefully and respectfully in glass showcases. Amongst the many thimbles, combes, spectacles, every day items like that, there stood out one, small, child’s red button. Red. All the others were brown or grey. I thought of the little cardigan that red button once belonged to, worn by a child happily walking to school for the last time. I will never forget that red button. And in light of the dreadful attacks on Paris, it reminds me that it is always the ‘small’ things that get us, everytime, urging us to keep praying and never stopping. I’m sorry for the sadness of this message dear Marylin, but I felt I needed to share this with you. The power of a button…<3

    • Such a poignant, beautiful comment, Sherri. Thank you so much for sharing this. The red button you describe reminds me of the black and white movie, SHINDLER’S LIST, where the one color is the red coat of a little girl in a crowd at the beginning, then found again in a heap of discarded clothing in the concentration camp.
      There’s so much sadness, heartbreak, and senseless violence, yet when we remember and share and write tributes, little rays of light flicker through. Your beautiful writing is one such example, Sherri, and I think you in advance for your post about Oradour-Sur-Glane. You’ll be the touchstone, the remembrance of those who were killed there. Thank you, dear Sherri.

  23. Thank you, Marylin, for your lovely story that prompts so many memories. I have a tiny button collection – saved from sweaters and blouses in the event I might need to replace a lost button. Something I haven’t done in years. I do remember some of the clothing they were once attached to. 😉

    • I was at a quilt display fundraiser several years ago. One of the quilts was twin-bed-sized, and the cotton fabric pieces were in a crazy quilt pattern. I’d seen this before, except within each crazy square or rectangle or triangle of cloth in the quilt, there was a button sewn somewhere, in the center or at a corner, etc.
      There was a note in the information saying that each piece of the quilt had come from a child’s or baby’s shirt, dress, coat, etc., plus a button from that piece of clothing had been saved as well and added to the quilt.
      So if you can remember the clothing the buttons were attached to, Judy, you’re a living memory of the same thing the quilters did with that quilt!

  24. Howdy! This post could not be written any better!

    Reading through this post reminds me of my previous roommate!
    He constantly kept preaching about this. I will forward this article to him.
    Fairly certain he’s going to have a good read. Thanks for sharing!

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