Appalachia Appalachia Through My Eyes

Appalachia Through My Eyes – Zizzer Buttons

My life in appalachia toy made with buttons

Ever play with a button on a string? Mamaw made one for me when I was just a child. I swear I remember exactly where I was standing in the house that’s no longer there, when she showed me how to make the button dance along the string.

I pulled everything out of a closet to see if I still had one in my old jewelry box-you know the kind that has a ballerina that twirls every time you open the lid? Anyway, I found 2 so it was worth the effort.

After looking at them, I decided neither of them was the one Mamaw made for me so many years ago. Most likely I made them myself after she passed away.

I googled around and discovered a button on a string was a common toy for kids in days gone by and that they were often called zizzer or buzz buttons. You can go here to see a list of old time toys, with buzz buttons being the last on the page.

Ever play with a button on a string?


Appalachia Through My Eyes – A series of photographs from my life in Southern Appalachia.


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  • Reply
    September 19, 2012 at 9:37 am

    life moments, that is what I call them. tiny memories of your past that escape until something brings them back.
    We had the button thing. And then just long loops of string to do Witches brooms and jacobs ladder.
    Great memories today.

  • Reply
    September 18, 2012 at 7:16 pm

    ‘Mamaw’ must be very old .. I had one too. Have never heard it used since, and I’m 70.

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    September 18, 2012 at 4:22 pm

    Tipper-This makes you realize, young kids don’t grow up, they just turn into old kids.
    Aren’t you surprised nobody mentioned our telephones made from a piece of string and two tin cans.

  • Reply
    September 18, 2012 at 2:31 pm

    Looks like just about all has been covered by your commentors..
    I commented yesterday but it must have gotten lost as it was pretty long..I clicked it spun, but it went to never, never land I guess..
    Dad made us a zizzer out of the large coat buttons that were beginning to show up in Moms button jars in the forties…Yep, got one in my hair too and it hurts like crazy…I think Mom cut it out..
    I was nature crazy and still am and Dad knew it..I was always saying I wasn’t afraid of snakes..
    He came in from work one night and handed me an old dirty envelope the kind that always cluttered up his dash on the old truck…He said he found these Rattlesnake rattles under some old boards where he was working..I opened it and got the “peewater” scared out of me and the envelope went flying. He laughed til supper, and then some!
    We had darts made of corncobs and feathers…too…The boys always making their own bows and arrows out of sapplings…
    I taught my boys how to make a zizzer..or whizzer…We also made a thing to swing around our head out of a long piece of rope with a small paddle tied on one end that had a hole in it…It made a good racket when your flung it around long enough…I see that most never said what the sling was made of…I made slingshots for my boys too…We took when I was a kid and old inner tube..cut the two sling lengths out…Got an old leather shoe tongue and secured the rubber in the holes..We used Moms ice pick and got caught sometimes…then secured the ends to the forked stick..Now then the forked stick had to be stripped of the bark and seems it lasted longer..You could be in a world of hurt if someone zapped something with a marble in the sling instead of a rock…I hate to say many an old starling met his maker with the slingshot..we were ate up with starlings…
    No amount of “techy” pushbutton, ear plugging devices today could match the fun and health aspects of mountain toys…
    Thanks Tipper

  • Reply
    September 18, 2012 at 2:14 am

    We used to do that too, but with a cardboard disc cut from an old Cornflakes box rather than a button; works just as well.

  • Reply
    Lonnie Dockery
    September 17, 2012 at 11:24 pm

    Not long ago my sister and I were talking about the toys Mother made for us to play with. We both remembered the zizzer button. We decided we could actually remember how to make those.

  • Reply
    David Templeton
    September 17, 2012 at 10:46 pm

    The comments here are a pleasure to read; after enjoying your article. Some mentioned it; I’m sure most who made and played with one of these “zizzers” knew that if you even got anywhere close to your sister’s long hair, there would be heck to pay. Once the whirring button gets even one attracted hair, the result is a balled-up, mess of hair wound tight onto the button and into the string and an impossible tangle to undo, comb out or fix; almost always, the hair ball had to be cut out.
    Susan’s right; a big coat button works great.
    We made lots of playthings, didn’t we? Pop guns, slingshots, whistles, bow and arrows, things made from empty thread spools and zizzers (actually, we never had a name for the buzzing button on a winding string some call a zizzer). Much better than texting and staring at a Smartphone.

  • Reply
    September 17, 2012 at 10:13 pm

    I read John’s comment about ‘hog
    killin’ time’ and that triggered
    me to comment again. John, when I
    was about 6 or 8, I remember two
    older men coming and killin’ our
    hog for us. One guy’s name was
    Purell Miller and he asked daddy
    just keep them a fire and water a
    boilin’ and they’d do the rest.
    Finally he brought me and my
    brother the bladder, told us to
    wash that thing in the creek real
    good, and showed us how to blow
    it up and tie it. Best thing we
    ever had for a ball to bounce on.
    Its a thousand wonders we didn’t’
    get a disease puttin’ that thing
    in our mouths. I’m still here!!!

  • Reply
    Granny Norma in WNC
    September 17, 2012 at 9:59 pm

    Tipper, you sure do jog the memory. It’s nice to spend a little time thinking about days gone by when things weren’t so complicated. We played with “hummer buttons” and even longer pieces of string to make “Jacob’s Ladder.” Plus, there was jump rope, jack’s (I still have mine,) marbles and hopscotch. When the Hula Hoop came out in the late 50s, a big grocery store in town held a Hula Hoop contest with prizes. I Hula Hooped for 5 hours and 10 minutes (they had to tell me to stop) to win one of 20 $1.00 gift certificates which I used to buy a bag of marshmallows, a box of cookies and plenty of candy. What a day! And remember, those were the days when you could buy a Coke or a Hershey bar for a nickel. Years later, I made “hummer buttons” for my own kids. They are great fun but watch out for purple fingers if you play with them for too long.
    PS: Will you PUH-LEEZE spill the beans about your fairy tale plant? The suspense is driving me crazy! I wonder if it’s more of a nightmare plant — maybe Jimson weed.

  • Reply
    Mary Rutherford
    September 17, 2012 at 9:11 pm

    My favorite toys were the pop guns my daddy made us. I believe the barrel was made of a hollowed piece of alder. He carved a little ram-rod the length of the barrel. We would load both ends with what we called pop gun berries from “the popgun berry tree” along Mountain Road. When the ram-rod forced the berry down the barrel the berry on the far end would explode out. We spent hours shooting them. When you got just the right berries a little puff of smoke would come out the end of the barrel. He would make us water squirters a similar way. Another favorite toy daddy made was a slip bark whistle. When I think of those whistles it makes me feel the freedom and joy of running barefoot in the East Tennessee springtime. So much fun for so little cost – just the time it took a loving daddy to make them!

  • Reply
    September 17, 2012 at 6:08 pm

    Ican remember the button string.
    can any one remember hog killing time. best toy I ever had Dad would take blatter and blow it up it would last for days frist ballon I ever had.

  • Reply
    Patti Tappel
    September 17, 2012 at 5:13 pm

    At the festival the Blacksmith and I were in this past weekend (Heritage Festival) the kids were making those!

  • Reply
    Mike McLain
    September 17, 2012 at 4:18 pm

    Probably spent hours playing with these. The treat was to come up with a big overcoat button or the like. They were always around.

  • Reply
    September 17, 2012 at 4:11 pm

    Gina’s description of her ‘sling shot’ was what we called a flip in my childhood days. A sling shot was two strips of leather or cord with a pad for the projectile to rest. You twirled it around and released one end to sling the rock. My dad and uncles taught me to make a variety of toys. Whistles, wooden wheeled wagons, pop guns, an acrobat etc. I Got in trouble in school over my four barreled pop gun – four pop guns taped together. Now that I think about it I was in some kind of trouble most every day even through high school. I could probably be labeled ‘a teacher’s worst nightmare’.

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    September 17, 2012 at 3:21 pm

    The thing we did with string was called a cat’s cradle. There was also a cup and saucer and a Jacob’s ladder. All made with a string tied in a loop.

  • Reply
    September 17, 2012 at 2:00 pm

    Thanks for reminding me of the old
    timey things that can pleasure a
    kid for the longest. Daddy used a
    hickory stick about a foot long
    stuck through a Red Rider wagon
    wheel and me and my brother bent
    over and drove that thing all over
    our property. (with our butts
    pointed toward the Moon.) And when
    Hula Hoops came out, he made us
    one from 1/2″ black pvc pipe,
    connected by a short stick. Our
    toys were “make do” but we didn’t
    miss out on much…Ken

  • Reply
    Sam Ensley
    September 17, 2012 at 12:57 pm

    I remember all of these. My grandmother also did a lot of things with string, but I don’t remember how she did it. One of them had “cradle” in its name. We had a lot of fun with “truck” wagons. Everything, including wheels, were homemade from wood. This article suggests an activity for our Heritage Festival next year: Demonstrations of building and playing with homemade toys. We have marble shooting already, and a “truck” wagon in the museum.

  • Reply
    September 17, 2012 at 11:22 am

    I think we called them “buzzers”. Speaking of getting toys tangled up in hair–my son ran his friction car across his aunt’s head & it wound her hair up in the wheels very tightly. She was hollering it hurt so much. Moving the car tightened the hair until we finally figured out to turn the wheels backward.

  • Reply
    September 17, 2012 at 10:45 am

    Yes indeed I did play with a button on a string—when we were small children my dad made is each one…. interesting how some things –no matter the distance between us all occur and we all played with many of the same things.

  • Reply
    September 17, 2012 at 10:29 am

    OH my I had forgotten how my Daddy taught my sister and I play with those buttons on a string. Thanks for the memories.

  • Reply
    September 17, 2012 at 10:16 am

    I never heard of these before, but do recall a homemade sling shot my Daddy made for me. He used a forked piece of tree branch, something like a wide rubber band and a patch of leather to hold the shot. I never harmed anything with it, but had lots of fun shooting. I’m going to look into making one of these buttons for my grand boys. Thanks for sharing.

  • Reply
    September 17, 2012 at 10:00 am

    My Grandfather Pop, who was born in 1897, knew about them and made me one when I was about 5 or 6. But my fascination only lasted a few minutes. I was way to active for it to keep me busy, so he went down to the shed and pulled out one of my Mother’s old saddles, a croker sack, a long rope and made me the greatest toy I ever had at his house besides the cement pond – a saddle swing in the old oak tree. Everyone got excited and told him I would break my neck, but he said no she won’t and I never fell off. 😀

  • Reply
    September 17, 2012 at 9:57 am

    My Grandpa made these for us when I was a kid. Old coat buttons were the best. He also made a toy out of rattle snake rattles and string but I could never make it rattle. He made us really cool whistles out of (I think Pawpaw) sticks. I am sure he did that to mess with my Grandma since we weren’t allowed to have them in the house.

  • Reply
    September 17, 2012 at 9:47 am

    I’ve never heard of a zizzer button, but isn’t it amazing how clever and creative mothers in the past were when it came to keeping the little ones entertained and out from underfoot!
    Thanks Tipper, for enlightening me once again!

  • Reply
    September 17, 2012 at 9:36 am

    A friend and I were just talking about these last week! and yes- they were a bear to get out of long hair!! We made these and played with these as children- My mother or her mother showed us how-
    now if I could just remember what we made that we put in an envelope to surprise someone- when they opened it it would buzz and startle them- we used to call them rattlesnakes…

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    September 17, 2012 at 9:35 am

    I am pretty sure we called it a zizzer too. I also remember the little tractor Tim is talking about. My uncle Frank Breedlove made me one when he came back from Korea. I remember it had notches cut in the spool that made it look like tractor wheels. I would like to know how to make one so I can make it for my grandsons. I can make the zizzer.

  • Reply
    September 17, 2012 at 9:33 am

    played with them many times as a kid. i think one of my maw maws made my first. probably because they all sewed back then and always had extra buttons lyin’ around. they sell them at the gift shop at john c. campbell as a “buzz saw”, made out of hand-carved wooden buttons. did any of you ever play with a “gee-haw whimmy diddle” as well? we shore could be entertained quite easily back then in the hills of gordon county ga. did any of you ever tie sewing thread to the leg of a june bug? that was our equivilent of a remote controlled airplane. as long as we were careful, we could play with it for a while and release the poor june bug “no worse for wear”. hey, that’s another old southern country sayin’!

  • Reply
    Bill Burnett
    September 17, 2012 at 9:33 am

    I played many times with a zizzer button and like Ed I got in trouble for “accidentally” letting them get into my sisters’ hair. There must have been a magnetic attraction, at least that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. Actually if you ever noticed these toys are a primative gyroscope.

  • Reply
    Paul Certo
    September 17, 2012 at 9:31 am

    We made those, but I never had a button that big for one! The bigger the button, the better they work.

  • Reply
    Bob Aufdemberge
    September 17, 2012 at 9:29 am

    I too had at least one as a kid. Hadn’t seen one for years.

  • Reply
    Ron Banks
    September 17, 2012 at 9:23 am

    I remember playing with one of those as well. Did anyone ever play with a June Bug tied to a piece of sewing thread? I loved flying those little critters, it was like having a tiny gas powered airplane on a tether. My grandpa use to make us a pop gun. It was more like a hollow stick with a plunger and it was made to shoot dogwood tree berries. Is would hurt like the dickens when you got shot by one of those.

  • Reply
    Kimberly Burnette
    September 17, 2012 at 9:16 am

    A button on a string was one of my favorite toys. My Grandma showed me how to make them. She always warned me to hold it away from my face so that when the string broke, as it always would, it wouldn’t put my eye out!

  • Reply
    Susan C
    September 17, 2012 at 9:13 am

    Even being a big city girl growing up in Charlotte, I remember playing with a button on a string. Maybe I can become a mountain girl one of these days after all.

  • Reply
    Shirl Akers
    September 17, 2012 at 9:11 am

    I remember the buzz button that didn’t have a name when I played with one. We also made some sort of humming thing from a wooden thread spool. The spool doubled as a fabulous bubble blower if we were lucky enough to find some liquid soap.

  • Reply
    September 17, 2012 at 8:32 am

    Yes I do remember these , don’t remember who showed us how to make them but when we wanted to make one we went to Moms big button box to find the biggest buttons we could find. Wish I had that big button box now!

  • Reply
    Bob & Inez Jones
    September 17, 2012 at 8:32 am

    We played with one of these many, many times. Don’t remember who showed me first. I made these for my children and my grandchildren. I worked for 8 years at a daycare and we even played with ones there (under supervision of course because of the buttons).

  • Reply
    Steve in Tn
    September 17, 2012 at 8:31 am

    Too bad most of today’s kids only play with hi-tech toys. There is a comfortable feeling looking back at a time when we could play with almost anything and make do. It was an exercise in immagination. I am not aquainted with the buzz toy, but had several other that were just as simple.

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    September 17, 2012 at 8:00 am

    Tipper, I’ve never seen a toy like that, as far as I recall. I’ll check the link to see if it shows what it does.

  • Reply
    B F
    September 17, 2012 at 7:52 am

    didnt have much for entertainment much back then ,it was all just clean and home made , yes i remember those buttons on a string that granny made but i dont think they gave them a name ,tipper i sure am glad you are bringing back some of the good old days to our remembrance
    they were more simple days and i,d like to go back there just one more day
    have a good one

  • Reply
    September 17, 2012 at 7:32 am

    I never had the privilege of this toy, but it certainly would have been interesting. However, we played Fox and Geese for hours using red corn and yellow corn. The board was hand drawn on cardboard.

  • Reply
    dolores barton
    September 17, 2012 at 7:30 am

    Somewhere, tucked bac into my brain I vaguely remember seeing one of those. My aunt who lived on a farm in Northern NJ had introduced me to one, but she kept it at her house. I don’t remember playing with it very often. I never knew what it was called; I haven’t seen or thought about one for over fifty years. Thanks for the good childhood memory.

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    September 17, 2012 at 7:14 am

    Tipper-I know you don’t have a sister. If you did your story might have been different. Those things have an attraction to long hair. Do you know how long it takes to get one of those things out of Sister’s hair.

  • Reply
    Tim Mc
    September 17, 2012 at 7:06 am

    I very well remember the button on a string, must have been a mamaw thing. Well it kept me entertained, also she made a thing, I think she called a creepy crawler. It was made from a wooden spool and a rubber band, and a wood dowel, I don’t know if I could make one or not, but you’d wind it up and it would crawl real slow across the floor..

  • Reply
    Sheryl Paul
    September 17, 2012 at 6:41 am

    I remember seeing one in school, one of my teachers brought in a bunch of homemade toys to show.

  • Reply
    September 17, 2012 at 6:22 am

    Yes I have played with them many times. I believe my Great Grandma made them for me.

  • Reply
    Pat in east TN
    September 17, 2012 at 6:20 am

    I had never run across one when I was young, but my mother-in-law made them for my two boys when they were young and they got the biggest kick out of them, and when my granddaughter was little I introduced her to a buzz button.

  • Reply
    Gorges Smythe
    September 17, 2012 at 5:05 am

    Played with them as a kid. Guess I was easily entertained.

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