Times Past: Buttons bring back memories of childhood play, family and milestones

  • Greenfield resident Janet Keyes removes the buttons on her shirts before disgarding them, a habit she inherited from her parents and grandparents, who lived through the Great Depression and never threw away anything that might possibly be used again. Contributed photo/Janet Keyes

  • While completely re-organizing her guest room, Greenfield resident Janet Keyes discovered that the most interesting task was dealing with her sewing corner, which brought back an abundance of childhood memories. For the Recorder/Janet Keyes


Published: 3/15/2019 3:23:56 PM

While completely re-organizing my guest room recently, I discovered that the most interesting task was dealing with my sewing corner.

Next to my sewing machine is a dresser with half its drawers dedicated to sewing materials. There are many spools of thread, extra strips of elastic, three pin cushions, bias tape, old zippers, new zippers, extra packets of pins and needles, sewing machine tools and oil, and containers of buttons. Whenever a shirt wears out, I still remove the buttons before discarding it, and save them for possible future use. This is a habit inherited from my parents and grandparents, who lived through the Great Depression and never threw away anything that might possibly be used again.

Finding my containers of old buttons awakened many childhood memories. First of all, having a sickly grandfather in the house meant that I had to find many quiet ways to entertain myself while Grandpa was napping or receiving care. Being allowed to empty the button box out onto a towel for closer examination was a huge treat.

There was an impressive variety of buttons. Some were small and dainty, and probably had been on baby clothes. Many were black or blue buttons removed from old and ragged work shirts. These were often found tied together with sewing thread for easy retrieval. Some buttons were metal and shiny. Others were large, strong and unappealing to a child, but probably would be re-purposed as jacket or coat buttons. A few were colorful and some had a beautiful pearl-like shine on their surface.

I spent long, rainy afternoons arranging and sorting the buttons. One pile would include all the white buttons, and other piles represented each color. Very pretty buttons had a special pile of their own, regardless of color. Metal buttons had their own piles, and most of them had a smooth outer surface with an underside that was flat and dull, and contained a central round loop that the thread would go through when the button was attached to a garment.

I sensed that the button box itself was special and old. As I recall, it was round and about 8 inches in diameter, with straight sides about 3 inches high. The box was wooden, and the sides curved gracefully around, possibly only about ⅜ inch thick. It was probably fashioned by steaming the strips of wood to bend them, just as nice furniture was made.

I never asked how it was made, though, or how old it was. I just knew that it should never be dropped on the floor, and should never get wet.

After my parents died, I never thought about the button box, because there were too many other pieces of furniture, books and small items to distribute. I hope it went to a good home. The five-generation three-day tag sale barely scratched the surface of the items, even after family members had claimed their favorite keepsakes. I did not have time to think about the button box or to look for it.

I have recently learned that many of my friends also grew up with a beloved container for buttons. Sometimes buttons were used to teach children how to count, some were used in games, and some were used in arts and crafts.

For myself, my favorite buttons were small and deep blue. Mom told me those buttons had been on my grandmother’s wedding dress. (Her Christmas Day wedding had not required a white wedding dress. As I recall, her dress was a beautiful soft gray woolen dress, which was a much more common thing in 1900.)

Inevitably, four of those buttons from her wedding dress were incorporated into the design of my own wedding dress. They do not show in the wedding photos, but I have the satisfaction of knowing those buttons were part of my wedding. I still have three or four of them that survived the childhood of my daughters, who also enjoyed playing with buttons, even without a sickly grandfather to avoid annoying.

As for the containers for my own buttons, they are just glass jars. No beautiful button box serves as a memento for my children. Different generations, different values, different treasures.

Janet Keyes is a longtime Greenfield resident, and a retired nurse. She is a leader of the Greenfield Senior Center’s writing group, Well Done Writers. To see more of the group’s writing, visit welldonewriters.com.

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