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.
There 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.”
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.
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