A Button Box

Today’s guest post was written by Sallie Swor.

I recently bought, a typical old tin of buttons. I have heard many people talk about their mother or grandmother’s button boxes. One I especially remember was a woman who said when she was sick as a child she was allowed to play in the button box while in bed.

Several years ago I was introduced to button collecting and although I’m not a member of any society (yes there are clubs and official meetings and competitions for the best collections-specifically categorized for competition-wired onto heavy mat board) I’ve found buttons to be very interesting little objects.

There are button dealers and some very expensive buttons. But I really enjoy finding an old jar or tin that someone “collected” and saved for their own use. I know very little about them but I have learned to recognize some of the materials common button box buttons are made from.

This most recent old tin I found is pretty interesting. In it were underwear buttons, many made of bone. There were many made from pearl or shell, some naturally colored and some dyed. A few of those were for tiny baby clothes (I wonder how they were cut from a large shell). Shoe buttons were pearl, ceramic and composition. Several ceramics and some glass were found. Sometimes it’s hard to tell those from plastic so I listen when I tap them on my teeth.

The ceramics look like they have tiny indentions on the back. They can be plain, look like a pie crust edge, tire, and lots of other shapes and designs.

Some were made from horn. Vegetable ivory made from a tauga nut is sometimes obvious showing lighter color inside the holes but sometimes hard to identify.

There were many old plastics and composition materials, celluloid, metals, some covered in fabric, etc.

Being a typical old button tin it also contained buckles, screws and nuts, zipper tabs, nails, beads, tacks, studs, a cuff link, small round rocks and an “Atlanta Georgia Power token good for one fare”.

There was a large button with an anchor that probably came off a Navy pea coat. A button like that makes me wonder about its history. Did the owner of the tin save it because of who wore it and I wonder when and where was it worn?

What about those baby and shoe buttons? Did the children pass the shoes down and wear them, getting them re-soled, until the heels ran over and the toes had holes with few buttons left as some I have seen.

What life did those metal work buttons and the underwear buttons live?

Most of these buttons were pretty plain-no fancy ones. I expect that says a lot about who saved them.

A few of the old larger plastics had a little design. It makes me wonder who wore them and where these buttons were worn and used.

Some of the plastic ones were cracked and most of the pearls were a bit dirty but a little baby or mineral oil will improve the pearls. I have separated them as best I can to get the plastics away from the metal and pearls because I have learned that they will tarnish and deteriorate if left together.

Evidently this owner kept the tin in a dry, safe place. If you have an old button box, get it out to allow it to air out, separate the buttons and see what you have. There is plenty of information available if you want to learn more or get serious about buttons or if you are like me and prefer just to look at them and wonder what their story is.

I wonder what happened to the buttons my mother and grandmothers saved. The only ones I have are the big spherical celluloid ones my mother saved from her wedding dress from 1931.

Sallie Swor

I hope you enjoyed Sallie’s post as much as I did. As soon as I read it I was taken back to childhood. I’d beg Granny to let me go through her buttons and I’d sit in the middle of her’s and Pap’s bed and wonder at all the pretty shapes, colors, and materials.

Granny had a tin of buttons much like the one Sallie described, and she had a yellow plastic case that was filled to the brim with buttons. She was a big believer in saving buttons and often cut buttons off a garment we’d worn out or ruined.

When I get time I’m going to go see if Granny’s still got those buttons and beg her to let me look at them again.


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  • Reply
    April 9, 2022 at 10:59 am

    My Grandma Carpenter had her buttons in an old jar, it was treasure to me as a child, as she would let me sort through and play with them. I recall some rhinestone ball shaped buttons, and asking her about them, and her telling me about them coming from a fancy dress her mother had been given, but when it were our they made something from the remnants but kept the buttons in case down the line they
    would be of use.

  • Reply
    Rebecca Wines
    July 7, 2020 at 6:48 pm

    I was always fascinated with the art of buttons; many are so beautiful! I started my collection approximately 10 years ago using a Duke’s Mayonnaise Quart jar. I will always cherish my buttons but will give them to people who need them?

  • Reply
    lynn legge
    July 5, 2020 at 10:20 am

    tipper i loved hearing the boys singing…paps voice like an angel from above….
    the buttons…ahhh i love them, any kind…color… i have many ball jars filled with them..and my grand children like to look at them.
    stay well dear tipper
    love to you all

  • Reply
    b. Ruth
    July 3, 2020 at 10:40 am

    I am almost ashamed to declare the amount of buttons I have…I have all my Mother’s buttons and she had her Mother’s buttons and some more from past old clothes and generations…
    When I was a little girl Mother made a lot of my clothes and blouses. My job when it came time to make the buttonholes and sew on the buttons was to get the big jars out and search for the right amount of buttons, size and color to match the shirt, skirt, blouse or dress she was making. I always wanted new buttons so sometimes there wasn’t enough in the right color/size for the garment. That is when we made a trip to the “five and dime” for a new card of buttons. Much to my delight, off we went, a slip of fabric in her purse and maybe a slip or two of other fabric she planned on sewing into garments. I loved looking thru all those carded buttons for just the right color, size and shape. Only once in a while she let me decide totally on a little fancy button shape, maybe a ship, dog, cat or such. They generally were more expensive…Since there were so many white buttons in her white button jar, a lot of times she decided just to use white buttons on blouses. Sigh…ha
    Another task I loved, was when she decided to add another jar to the button jars. So I got to pour them all out and separate the colors into new jars. Sometimes she just tossed buttons into one jar when she was sorting old clothes to trash or make quilts and always, always cut off the old buttons even if there were buttons missing or of differing sizes. One time I took it on my own to take all those huge coat or wrap garment buttons and put in one jar…They were some of the most interesting from the twenties, thirties and forties…Nearly always dark brown, dark grey, black or tortoise colored. Some had carved grooves in line or crosshatched or cut in concentric circles…There were the big wooden buttons too…Usually only one or two. Mother managed to use those when she got in the “Make a couch pillow” rage in the ffties. Using one of those big old buttons for the center of the pillow…Made it very hard to lay your head on those type couch pillows…I could go on with one of my “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without” Appalachian heritage tales….Don’t get me on quilt scraps, pillow ticking, flour sack dresses/aprons and clothes from such!
    Thanks for this post, Sallie. Also Tipper for sharing, reading brought back many memories…I sorted my jars many years ago by color, size, some by era, metal buttons, wooden buttons, handmade buttons and shell and iridescent too. Baby buttons that you rarely ever see on a baby garment anymore because of safety reasons, unless it was made with love by a grandmother…

  • Reply
    Jim Casada
    July 2, 2020 at 6:22 pm

    Tipper–This post was an exercise in pure delight carrying one’s mind back to the past. Pinnaclecreek nailed it with her comment about “waste not, want not.” Just as men saved nails, screws, bolts, and nuts (you never knew when you would need one), women saved buttons, scraps of cloth, glass jars, and indeed anything that might have a use somewhere down the road. I hadn’t thought about this for years but well recall Momma’s button jar (or more likely, multiple ones). Ann, my wife, had one as well but it has disappeared. Maybe it was among the things I brought to Brasstown after she had to go into a nursing home. If so, I’m sure one of the girls or you have found, or will find, some use for the buttons at some point.
    Jim Casada

  • Reply
    betty stephenson
    July 2, 2020 at 3:49 pm

    hi from christchurch i also have a great selection of buttons i have saved from old clothing etc and another box foll which i keep in my grandmothers old sewing box there are all shapes and types and all used for any number of projects extremely useful you can also find them occasionly at garage sales or the fairs and markets here have a great day all

  • Reply
    Kat Swanson
    July 2, 2020 at 3:47 pm

    Mommy had a fruit cake tin full of buttons .. saved every button , no matter how big or small. I loved ever one…stole the big ones to make a toy for myself and my 4 ugly brothers… took a nose yard of stout string , and a button at least an inch big. Put the button on the string , in one hole, out the other, making a loop with string…tie ends together good. Put loops over fingers on each hand , swing button around to wind up, then make that button whizz!
    I called these toys ..button on a string …made hundreds of them to give away at my Appalachian stortelling presentations over the last 35 years. Found the toy all over the world, but sometimes not all over USA.
    SECOND THING ABOUT MOM’S BUTTONS…..we very not too proud to wear second hand clothes from church thrift shop….As a little girl, I would trail behind my mommy as she shopped there and often heard her say how the article of clothing would need to have buttons put on it after we washed it. ”
    ” Don’t them rich folks know we need buttons on our clothes, too.” she’d say.
    Our button collection came in handy!

  • Reply
    July 2, 2020 at 1:45 pm

    The button box of my childhood was one of my father’s square pipe tobacco tins full of buttons from my Grammy and my mother, and I have one of my own tins full from years and years of saved buttons. But when I saw a little square jam jar full of buttons at a tag sale, well, I had to bring it home. I’ve not used any buttons from that one yet, but I did make a watercolor painting of it a few weeks ago – so it’s already earned it’s keep 😉 I’ve often thought it would be fun to make ceramic buttons – one-of-a-kind buttons for a special garment, maybe.

  • Reply
    July 2, 2020 at 1:37 pm

    This sure brought back memories Tipper. Momma kept all different colors, shapes of buttons in a Mason jar and a tin can. Any time we lost a button on our clothes, she would see one on for us. After I got big enough, I started doing it to. Sorry to say ,our house with everything burned down. Daddy even had old, old money in there to.

    • Reply
      July 3, 2020 at 9:42 pm

      We lost our button box in a fire too. Should have been in an unharmed part of the house and stored by insurance during rebuild but didn’t get it back.

  • Reply
    Ann Applegarth
    July 2, 2020 at 11:03 am

    Mama’s button “box” was a big round blue tin box. When I was very young, she threaded a
    big needle with heavy thread, ran it through a big button a couple of times, then
    let me add buttons one by one till I had a long string. There were enough buttons to
    make two or three long strings!

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    July 2, 2020 at 9:58 am

    I never dug around in Mommy’s button box. She kept pins and needles in there with the buttons. Did you ever stick a needle upinunder your fingernail?

  • Reply
    Ken Roper
    July 2, 2020 at 9:54 am

    Mama had a stroke when I was about a month old. But when she got out of the hospital at Andrews, she taught all her boys how to sew buttons on. She had a tin box with more buttons in it than Carters got Pills.

    Dr. Rodda, Van Gorder, and Blalock, were her doctors and they liked Mama, she stayed in the hospital for several weeks and when she left, her Doctors called Daddy into the next room and said, “when you’re down this way, if you have any extra money, just drop by and pay what you can.” The Doctors ran the hospital back then, and they were in the War together, so they knew how things were. Daddy didn’t even have a Regular job, but after a time, he got them paid. …Ken

  • Reply
    July 2, 2020 at 9:18 am

    Mom kept every button from clothes we wore out. She kept them in a big gallon jug that once held some sort of store bought food. I remember taking four matching buttons and making wheels for my car I designed with leaves and sticks. If we were lucky enough to find a rubber band, we could do all sorts of things with the bigger buttons. Seems like my cousin had one game called walking the dog. He was always doing some kind of prank. The rubber band and button served him well when it came to torturing us girls with a makeshift sling shot.
    I love to go metal detecting and have found a few strange buttons that left me wondering if they came from a military uniform.

  • Reply
    July 2, 2020 at 9:13 am

    I just have not thought about buttons for a long time, but again, Tipper, your post has made me think–scary huh? Thanks so much to Sally Swor for sharing her vast knowledge of buttons. I have an old sewing stand of Mom’s, and I will need to see if there are buttons in it. I feared using the thread because it has probably dry rotted.

    I am one of the fortunate ones that had Home Economics. Even more fortunate that we took such an interest in sewing that the school offered Home Ec 11. My interest has been sporadic through the years, but overtime has been limited to making purses or masks. As a child I saw a button collection in almost every home. My Mother used a treadle without a button hole maker, and her buttonholes were slits with a tightly woven pattern around it using hand stitching. I encountered outrageous pricing for buttons, snaps, hooks, and other needed items for purse making. I started buying thrift purses and dresses just for their buttons and hooks, and had quite a collection. Some of the clothing obviously did not fit me, so granddaughter tossed these items on one of her helpful house cleaning sprees. Specifically my XXL white dress with a kazillion huge beautiful buttons on it was tossed. Some ginormous jeans bit the dust also. I had envisioned a beautiful purse made from the ample supply of denim in those jeans. I chalked it up as my “waste not, want not” mindset conflicted with her minimalist ideas. 🙂 I did find a huge plastic bag of thread and notions cheap. I have used this for mask making, but it would take me two lifetimes to use up that thread. This wonderful collection makes one think of the dear soul who may have collected all this, as it contains half finished needle point and some thread on a wooden spool.

  • Reply
    Margie Goldstein
    July 2, 2020 at 8:24 am

    Always worth the read and contemplation of the subject matter you bring forth!!! It gets the mind wheels turning and thinking about the past and all the wonderful things that were and will likely NEVER BE AGAIN.

    • Reply
      Sherry Whitaker
      July 2, 2020 at 11:16 am

      Oh I loved Ken Roper’s post because Dr. Blalock surely has to be a cousin from my North Carolina roots! Will get my sister, Charline, to check it out as she is the ancestry person in the family. I know the Lord blessed then for their care & compassion for his mother. Sweet memories of time gone by.

  • Reply
    aw griff
    July 2, 2020 at 8:21 am

    I remember as a small child playing with buttons. My Grandmother always kept a button jar, an old glass jar. Many times I occupied myself by going through the buttons. They were all shapes, sizes, and colors. My Mother also kept buttons but they were in a Christmas cookie tin.
    My Grandmother had 5 daughters for whom she had to make dresses. Buttons were often used to change the look of a dress.
    Anita G.

  • Reply
    Ron Stephens
    July 2, 2020 at 8:10 am

    I’ve posted this before but . . my Mom saved buttons in a Pond’s face cream jar. It was salmon pink outside and milk glass white inside. The inside was curved in the bottom and very smooth. It didn’t hold a lot of buttons. Ours were plain buttons. I doubt we owned anything with fancy ones. I like the buttons made of bone, wood or brass. I have made buttons from disks cut from mountain laurel, deer antler and holly. I may even have some of them around still in a little box in my t-shirt drawer.

    On a side note, there is an historical marker in Clinton, TN on the banks of the Clinch River commemorating the industry of making buttons from the shells of river mussels. Of course that is a thing of the past because most of the mussels are rare and endangered species.

    • Reply
      b. Ruth
      July 3, 2020 at 11:10 am

      We live practically on the lake here in East Tn. near Clinton in Roane Co. If I am not mistaken, I read a couple of years ago that it is now illegal to even pick up old mussel shells when found laying on the lake or river bank. Also, of course arrow heads…leave them be it said! When I was a child many a Sunday afternoon found us at the river bank wetting a hook. Mostly we, just had a picnic but I came home with a paper bag of old empty, (dirtied with mud) mussel shells, chigger bites and sunburn! I would scrub those old shells until the stink was near gone and use them when I played house for fancy dishes. I am still fascinated by those huge shells some shiny some not. Those were the good ole days…
      b. Ruth

  • Reply
    gayle larson
    July 2, 2020 at 7:54 am

    Another great memory. Thanks.

  • Reply
    Sheryl Paul
    July 2, 2020 at 6:59 am

    Oh what memories this brought back. My mother had a button nox an old tin cookie can. How I loved to play with those buttons. My sisters were never as fascinated as I was. As I got older and learned to sew there were always buttons to match whatever I was making

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    July 2, 2020 at 6:52 am

    I don’t recall right off if I still have a button jar now but most of my life I had at least three button jars, one for whites, one for colors and one for metal buttons. I can remember getting rid of two and just keeping one. I saved buttons in glass jars, that way I could see what was in there without opening them. All I had to do was turn them on their side and roll them in my hand and I could see every button in the glass jar. I did a lot of sewing and often used the buttons but more than that I liked buttons, they are pretty and they are history.
    Thanks Sallie, for the post, it brings back memories!

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