A couple of weeks ago, a woman about my age came up to my table at a Kroger book signing. She looked briefly at the books I had on display and asked, “What is a button box?”
Her question surprised me because most women in my demographic are at least familiar with button boxes even if they didn’t have one in their own families. Fortunately, I had grabbed my family button box and put it in my bag that morning before I left the house. I was able to show it to her and to tell her about some of the buttons.
For those of you who are wondering…yes, she did buy a book and she also said she might start a button box for her six-year-old granddaughter!
A button box is simply a container for storing your buttons. I also like to think of it as a memory box since it stores your family buttons as well as the memories that go along with them. Many people have fond memories like I do, of going through the family button box with a beloved mother or grandmother.
As I tell in my book, my mother and I had a familiar ritual for going through our button box. We would search for our favorite buttons first, and then we would pick out the familiar ones that had come from our clothing. Next, we would go through the button box and find other interesting buttons and wonder about the clothing from which they had come. To this day, I still love to put my hands in the button box and feel the cool buttons against my warm skin.
Years ago, every household had a button stash of some kind. In the days before we had a store on every corner, people made their own clothing and buttons were used over and over again on new garments when the old ones were worn out. Think of it as an early version of recycling.
People kept their buttons in all sorts of containers and these were passed down through the generations. My family’s button box was originally an old fruitcake tin. “Chicago” is stamped on the bottom of the tin. This makes sense because my great-grandmother’s family came from Sweden and settled in Chicago. My great-grandmother also loved fruitcake and had it in her pantry every Christmas when I was a little girl. Perhaps our button box once held one of the fruitcakes she enjoyed so much!
Since the publication of my book in 2014, lots of people have shared stories about their family button boxes. Many people used tins for their buttons like my family did, but I’ve also heard of a lot of people using glass jars such as Mason Jars, old cigar boxes, wood boxes, metal boxes, porcelain containers, bags, and baskets. Some families simply kept their buttons in the drawers of their sewing machine tables.
One day about a year ago, I read “The Button Box” to several classes at an elementary school. At the end of the story, I asked if anyone had a button box at home and if so, what kind of container were their buttons kept in. One girl raised her hand and said her family had a long, white button tube sock. She said it was about halfway full of buttons and her mom kept it hanging in their laundry room. That was the most unusual button box container I’ve heard about.
During the past three years, people have sent pictures of their family button boxes or brought them to show me. Many of these family boxes held more than just buttons. A lot of them are jam-packed full of other treasures too!
Recently, a friend here in town shared her family button box with me. It was fun to see all of the buttons as well as the other treasures it contained!
Button boxes often held not only buttons but miscellaneous sewing supplies too such as thimbles, buckles, snaps, hook and eyes, sequins, bobbins, safety pins, and bits of lace. In these containers, you might also find things like marbles, dice, beads, game pieces, coins, keys, screws, chalk, bobby pins, paper clips, and pictures. All of these items would find a home in treasured button boxes.
In today’s modern world, fabric and hobby stores now sell new containers for buttons and other sewing notions. But you would be surprised to find out how many people still have and treasure their old family button boxes.
Author’s note: One of the other fun parts of publishing a book about my family’s button box has been all of the “button” items that people have made for me and have given me. Here are a few pictures of some of the items I have received from friends and family since my book came out!