Out & About: A Fascination With Fasteners: Buttons Help Bring History, People Together

  • A tray of glass moonglow buttons put together by collector Lorraine Goodman. (Valley News — Liz Sauchelli) Valley News photographs — Liz Sauchelli

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    A collection of "V for Victory" buttons with Morse code collected by Betty Cross. (Valley News — Liz Sauchelli) —Courtesy photograph

Valley News Calendar Editor
Published: 9/19/2018 10:00:05 PM
Modified: 9/19/2018 10:00:20 PM

Lebanon — Look around the Upper Valley and it’s easy to see how much people care about history. There are town historical societies with museums and special exhibits. There are numerous history-based lectures throughout the year. There’s a plethora of historic buildings, historic bridges and antiques shops.

But there’s another way to look at history: Through the buttons on people’s clothes.

On Saturday, the public will have a chance to explore that history at a gathering of the New Hampshire State Button Society, from 9 a.m.-noon, at the First Congregational Church, 230 Park St., Lebanon. The meeting is hosted by the Twin Valley Button Club, which is made up of about 15 members, mostly from the Upper Valley.

“Most people inherit their grandma’s buttons,” said Lorraine Goodman, of Canaan, president of the club. “That’s how they get hooked. Or someone gives them a collection.”

The Twin Valley Button Club is part of the greater New Hampshire State Button Society, the Northeast Regional Button Association and the National Button Society. Other New Hampshire button clubs include the Amoskeag Button Club and the Belknap Button Club. Vermont’s chapter is the Verd Mont Button Club.

On Wednesday morning, Goodman and Betty Cross, of South Royalton, treasurer of the Twin Valley club, were kind enough to give me a crash course on button collecting. And believe me when I say there is much to be fascinated by — from the history behind the buttons to the materials they’re made of to the artistry that went into their creation.

“That’s what the club is all about,” Cross said, “education, history and art.”

The New Hampshire State Button Society meets three times a year at alternating meeting sites. April’s meeting is for club business, July’s is for a button auction and September’s is for a competition. Dealers also will be present on Saturday and there will be an opportunity to view and purchase buttons. (The Twin Valley Button Club meets monthly, from March to November, at members’ homes.)

Most collectors display their buttons on 9-inch by 12-inch cards, organized by likeness and type. Goodman showed me a board of glass moonglow buttons that she will be entering in Saturday’s competition. The colors range from purple to red to green and gray, overlaid with metallic designs that turn the buttons into a ladybug, frog and flowers, or frame the pretty glass with intricate borders.

“It’s a lot of different things to look at when you’re putting a (card) together,” Goodman said. She started collecting buttons about a decade ago after coming across some vintage buttons while out thrifting. Today she’ll sometimes buy jars of buttons, digging into them until she finds ones she’s interested in. “I’ve had very good luck with yard sales,” Goodman said.

Some of the most valuable buttons are related to the military and especially the Civil War. Cross and Goodman told me about a button commemorating George Washington’s inauguration that sold for more than $2,500 at a recent auction.

Cross showed me two cards of “V for Victory” buttons she’s collected, one including buttons that had Morse code imprinted on them. She found out about them from a 1942 magazine article and went about putting together a set.

“You just need to be on the lookout for them and know what you’re looking for,” Cross said.

Buttons might not be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about World War II history, but seeing Cross’ collection sparked a memory. I thought about how, when I was a child, my grandmother would give me buttons to play with. My guess is that they came from her sewing basket. Being raised in the Depression era, my grandmother seldom gets rid of anything that might have a use someday. She also was the one who made clothes, darned socks — and replaced buttons.

In many ways, buttons are in the women’s domain, and they’re something so commonplace it’s easy to overlook their beauty and uniqueness. Taking a look through editions of The National Button Bulletin newsletters, it’s clear some buttons are miniature works of art. Some are engraved, some are painted, their detail impeccable. And, like much of the unsung work women do, they serve a practical purpose.

I think of the thousands — no, likely the tens of thousands of stitches my grandmother has sewed or knit in her lifetime. Her vision no longer allows her to do detailed work or make the yearly Christmas slippers, with a decorative pom-pom, of course, that I remember from my childhood (and still keep, despite outgrowing them well over a decade ago). Cross and Goodman recommended that I ask her if she has a button collection — and maybe volunteer to take it on.

Because, as I now know, buttons don’t have just historical significance: They have a personal significance, as well. These simple items, which have been part of our clothing for centuries, tell a different history — a social history — and are a form of self-expression that deserves to be celebrated as such.

Editor’s note: For more information visit, nhstatebuttonsociety.org or nationalbuttonsociety.org. Liz Sauchelli can be reached at esauchelli@vnews.com or 603-727-3221.

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