Victorian Button Strings

A button string (not the one in the FHM collection)

A button string (not the one in the FHM collection)

Recently, the museum was given a rope of Victorian buttons. At first I thought it was just one person’s collection but I have now found several others in museum collections. It turns out ‘button strings’ as they were called, were popular pastimes made by girls in the late 19th century. A large button tied to one end of a piece of string anchored a collection of small, usually glass and metal-faced buttons with shanks. These types of small metal shank buttons were commonly used for closing bodices from the 1860s to the 1890s, which coincides with the same period button strings were popular.

001There is romantic folklore associated with button strings and how unmarried girls would collect 999 buttons, no two alike, only accepting buttons as gifts from family or exchanges from friends. I haven’t found a period reference for the meaning of 999 buttons, but some have speculated that the thousandth button was either a harbinger of imminent marriage or eternal spinsterhood.

The earliest reference I found for button strings comes from the lyrics of an 1870 song entitled ‘Give My Button String to Sister’, a maudlin ballad about a dying young girl and her wishes for her button string to be given to her baby sister upon her death.

“Give my button string to Sister,
I’ll not want it any more.
Ere the morrow sun is shining
I’ll be on the Golden Shore.
Tell my sister when she’s older,
When she first begins to sing,
That her angel sister left her
All her pretty button string.”
Metal shank buttoned bodice, c. 1890

Metal shank buttoned bodice, c. 1890

There is a collection of 90,000 buttons that came from button strings in The Museum of Connecticut History at Hartford. The collection came from John Tingue and has an interesting provenance. Tingue was showing his prize angora goats at the Connecticut State Fair in 1883 where he saw the display of a button string consisting of 1,432 buttons. Intrigued by the collection, Tingue offered a prize of $50.00 to young ladies under 20 years of age who could produce a string of at least 2700 buttons within 30 days. Tingue was inundated with button strings but honoured his commitment and paid out the prize money to all the entries. (He probably didn’t consider that several young ladies might combine their button strings and share the prize money…) In 1884 the collection was presented to the Connecticut State Agricultural Society and placed in the State Capital until it was transferred to the State Library in 1943 and later the State Museum.

The most recent reference I found for a button string was of one in a museum collection that came with a note dating it to 1899. The pastime died out at about this time, just as metal shank buttons were being displaced by hidden closures, or the popular decorative use of shell buttons with 2 or 4 sewing holes on the face.

For more info

About Jonathan

Jonathan Walford is a fashion historian and co-founder of the Fashion History Museum in Cambridge, Ontario. The FHM maintains a collection of nearly 12,000 artifacts dating from the mid 17th century to the present. Jonathan has authored various books and museum catalogues, including The Seductive Shoe, Shoes A-Z, Forties Fashion, 1950s American Fashion, and Sixties Fashion.
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10 Responses to Victorian Button Strings

  1. Daniel says:

    I remember there being a button string in the Little House on the Prairie books made for/worn by Laura Ingall’s younger sister Carrie. A search confirms it was a Christmas present made in “On The Banks of Plum Creek.”

    • Jonathan says:

      That would be perfect timing for this collecting fad, as Laura Ingalls Wilder would have been 10 in 1877. I’ve never read the books – only seen the TV series. I didn’t know there could be such interesting references!

      • Daniel says:

        There are a LOT of really interesting refs/commentary in the books. Even bearing in mind that they were probably edited quite heavily by Laura’s daughter in the 1930s, there are all sorts of interesting snippets and comments, such as a teenage Laura describing how the 1880s narrower hoopskirts tended to ride upwards under your skirts and you had to spin round and round to shake them back down.

        • Jonathan says:

          I never considered reading the series because I thought the books were considered fiction, but I just read a synopsis and see it is now considered somewhat autobiographical. Obviously these kinds of observations come from experience… Could you write a book report and outline all the fashion references for me? lol

          • Daniel says:

            Ha. Actually I’ve been meaning to re-read them again so that’s not such a cheeky suggestion. I learned a lot of fabric names from them, like delaine, calico, and challis, and there are a lot of detailed descriptions of clothing and accessories
            and entire passages about dressmaking, both at home, and when Laura went to work, making shirts in a small prairie town shop (she hated doing buttonholes so much that she learned how to do them really fast….)

            Something else I just remembered – the consternation when they thought they’d gotten something seriously wrong with making her sister Mary’s college dress as it was straining at the seams – until they realised her corset strings had stretched out and needed relacing. Again, that’s the kind of detail that sounds like it comes from personal experience.

          • Daniel says:

            Here’s the page with the hoopskirt reference – that’s the kind of thing that only someone who had regularly worn them on an everyday basis would be able to describe so vividly.


  2. liz says:

    The button-string plays a small but poignant role in L.M. Montgomery’s novel The Blue Castle (1926) as well. Chapter 8 alludes to Valancy, aged ten at the time (this would date the event to 1907) being robbed of the finest buttons from her button-string by her despicable cousin Olive. Don’t worry, Valancy gets her own back in the end.

    • Jonathan says:

      I bet Montgomery (who would have been in her fifties when she wrote this story) is using her own childhood memory from the 1880s of button strings as a popular collecting fad but has faulty memory as to when that fad was popular. 1907 is really too late for button strings – metal shank buttons are not in use except for larger ones in fabric for coats, or tiny black and white ones for button boots – the decorative metal and glass buttons typically found on button strings were no longer being used in fashion by 1907.

  3. eleanor monroe says:

    This is so interesting! I have many shank, metal and glass buttons from this period. Numerous jets. I also have some old clothing from late 1800 to early 1900s. These are all from my family. I do wonder how best the clothing could serve to further study the period and would be glad for any tips on caring people to possibly give it to.
    Thank you.
    Sincerely , Eleanor Monroe

    • Jonathan says:

      local museums are always one place to explore as potential homes for family clothing treasures…

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