I don’t know where the picture is, at the moment, but there is at least one photo documenting one of my favorite childhood pleasures: playing with buttons from our button jar. We sorted, counted, traded, grouped, admired, and made art with them. It was quite a cooperative effort considering there were 5-10 of us doing this at any given time. We shared buttons much better than we shared Legos.
I read a Scholastic book once where the main character finds a precious pearl in an old jar of buttons. It doesn’t look like a pearl, though, and she doesn’t know what she has for a while. Even though I knew my mom had amassed the buttons in our family jar at sales and such, I still hoped to find a treasure there some day.
My childhood affinity for buttons continues. The jar pictured above is one we found at an antique store in Iowa City. (Hey, Artifacts! Are your ears burning? Your treasures feature in many of my Favorite Things Friday posts!) We didn’t need it (as you’ll soon see) but my lovely sister-in-law Dimitra saw how excited Carsten and I were about it and she got it for us. A perfectly impractical gift, the best kind! It is remarkable for the quantity and quality of buttons. My favorites are 40s or 50s vintage (60s aren’t bad, either), brightly colored and unusually shaped. This jar is full of them. When my nieces and nephews visit, they often haul out the button jar and dig in.
(Speaking of digging in, you know that scene in Amelie where she plunges her hand into a sack of beans at the market? Plunging your fingers into a bucket of buttons is pleasant like that.)
In fact, I have a little pile of buttons in a candy dish that sits on my coffee table for little and big people to peruse. Sometimes the buttons are sorted by color or some other attribute, other times they mingle gleefully.
Sometimes I’m compelled to collect things just because I like them, but I have a general policy about things needing to be useful. I use buttons for decorating, making birds, sewing projects, gifts, etc. I also like collecting old jars. One day when I was setting up my crafty nook, I realized the buttons and the jars were meant for each other. I sorted them by color and shape, which let me display two treasures and made both more useful.
Like many of the relatively practical treasures I hunt for in flea markets and estate sales, I can’t help but wonder about the lives these buttons had before they came my way. What kind of coat did they adorn? Did the wearer finger them lovingly as she went about her errands? What kind of vintage fabric were they paired with? Did someone lose one button from a set, and did they miss it terribly?
Buttons are perfect souvenirs. They take up little suitcase space, they’re inexpensive, and many regions have their own pretty kinds of buttons. I have some lovely Czech buttons that I got in Denmark, and I like to think about how they traveled there. I have buttons that somebody must have worn in Europe during World War II. So much history.
Buttons are also a perfect token of affection. You can keep one in your pocket like a worry stone, or tack them to your bulletin board to perk it up, or keep them in your change purse for a hit of nostalgia when you’re out and about. I have a few friends who I know love buttons and they often share my stash, but I’ve also noticed that non-button people start to love buttons if they are given a good one. I often tuck them inside treasure boxes or greeting cards or the shrines I make.
My favorite buttons resemble candy, perhaps not surprisingly. Here’s a gander…