Photo courtesy Flickr
Every household used to have a button box. I grew up with one my mother had acquired from her mother. It contained a button history of twentieth century West Coast clothing. Buttons used to be a complicated technical and laundry issue, and they are still a key to certain fashion strategies. It pays off to sew fine buttons on an inexpensive garment.
Buttons were costly enough to be worth salvaging when a garment wore out, and so I learned to play with black plastic carved art deco fasteners, abalone classics from casual plaid jackets, and fascinating little detachable buttons and their chrome cotter pins from the starched uniforms of a nurse who lived next door. There were even a couple of eighteenth-century ornamental cut steel waistcoat buttons in the collection.
When the flow of used clothing began to be diverted from rag bags and quilt projects to thrift stores, housekeepers realized it was mean-spirited to remove buttons, and in my life, at least, the button box began to stagnate.
It was one of my favorite toys, though, and after I entered art school, I realized I could play a kind of “button chess” with the contents of the old pressed-tin hard candy container and a checkered table cloth. The exercise is a good way to hone one’s eye for form, and I highly recommend it. If I were assembling a button box today, I’d go around the house and scrounge artifacts small enough to fit easily onto one of the squares of a picnic cloth. They could be anything: stamps, little plastic toys, costume or other jewelry, shells, even buttons.