What Can You Learn About Your Ancestor from a Box of Old Buttons and Keys?
Quite a bit. Lately I’ve been spending more time in my home archive, photographing and cataloging assorted objects that really need a little attention. Like this metal tin box of assorted buttons and other bits collected and saved by my Grandmother Arline.
You might wonder why this tin didn’t hit the trash bin when Arline’s papers were moved around from place to place and owner to owner? And why it might be worth examining at all? Why, indeed?
Historian James Deetz, notes “a concern for the material objects of the past, ‘the small things forgotten,’ is central to the work of historical archaeologists,” (In Small Things Forgotten: An Anthology of Early American Life).
His term “historical archaeologists” aptly describes the family historian and genealogist aiming to reconstruct family lives.
Sandra Hargreaves Luebking, FUGA, and Loretto Dennis Szucs, FUGA in The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy highlight the genealogical value of household archaeology:
One researcher discovered a police badge among her family’s home possessions. There was little on it to connect the original owner to a particular police department or time period, yet it opened doors otherwise closed. This object provided an indicator, in this case to an occupation, which distinguished the ancestor from the many other urban dwellers of the same name.
Family historians need to be open-minded about what constitutes a “home source.” It seems to me that collections of personal “stuff” are much like novels — authored, collected, curated by grand design. If we can slog our way through the rust and remains, we might be able to find more than a little hint of the owner’s life and personality. In English Lit, we called it a “close reading,” picking apart every nuance and inflection of a passage to dig below the surface and discover what the author might really be trying to say to us.
Of course, genealogists have to be careful not to wander too far afield. It’s good history to use an estate inventory as a gauge for a person’s economic status or literacy; clothes, linens, silver, and books, can build a picture of a person’s life and home. It’s probably poor history to conclude a man was too unable to support a wife because his four pairs of shoes were listed as “old.”
But when it comes to a box of buttons and other trinkets, we can make a few observations before tossing that box in the bin.
Button, Button, Who Owned the Button?
First, we need to establish the owner and provenance of the object. This box came to me through a few other people: my mother held it for several months, and before that it was in my aunt’s care with the rest of my grandmother’s things. The box was found inside a trunk with Arlines’ photos, letters, and other personal items. The reality is that either my mother or my aunt could have added to or removed things from the box while it was in their possession. But, does it matter? The contents all appear to be about the same era, nothing newer than 1970 or so. If anything was added to the box, it was most likely something found loose inside the trunk with Arline’s other things.
Next, we need a physical description.
The metal box itself measures about 7-inches in diameter and is 2-inches high. The top is an embossed painted pattern of red and yellow roses. A label on the bottom of the tin reveals it’s original purpose as a metal candy container:
Ingredients: Sugar, Corn Syrup, Citric and Tartaric Acid, Apple Jam, U.S.A. Certified Colors and Flavors.
Net Weight: 12 ozs.
Made in England expressly for
Limburger Food Company
129 Fair St.
Palisades Park, New Jersey
This sounds to me like a recipe for old-fashioned fruit jellies, the kind rolled in fine white sugar for a sparkly finish.
A quick internet search turns up several 1940’s candy items listed on eBay. A “Lemberger Candy Company” now located in Paramus, New Jersey still offers sweets for sale.
It seems reasonable to accept that Arline somehow acquired the candy tin sometime in the 1940s or later. We won’t go so far as to say she was gifted the candy box, but that may have happened. Her letters reveal a woman with a great fondness for candy and sweets of all kinds.
The 1940’s date is plausible, and so is the idea that Arline repurposed the candy tin to hold loose buttons.
Reading Between the Buttons
The tin holds more than buttons.
- match boxes
- drawer pulls
- curtain rings
- shoe buttons
- soutache braided trim
- a pencil
- a picture hook
- blouse buttons
- decorative buttons
- thimbles, and
- a hat pin
How are these items alike? How are they different? Why were they saved? Carefully collected and stored in one place, or gathered together from random corners of drawers and cupboards forming a sort of ad hoc collection?
I don’t know that the “how” is as significant as the “what” or “why.” These small objects were set aside, and not discarded because someone, most likely my grandmother, saw that they still had value and purpose.
The items fall into three groups:
- household hardware: curtain rings, drawer pulls, cabinet hardware, keys
- personal: matches, pencil
- clothing: garment buttons and fasteners, trim, shoe buttons, hat pin
Wouldn’t you save a drawer pull that fell off in a household move? Would you be able to find it again to repair the furniture? And keys? Easy to lose, hard to remember what they unlock.
Do the matches indicate the owner was a smoker? Not necessarily. These two boxes are still filled with matches. But the pretty shiny boxes fit right in with the once-glittering brass hardware and sparkling imitation-gem buttons.
You probably wouldn’t find a pencil imprinted with The Lord’s Prayer in a Roman Catholic Church, but it would have been a common sight in Grandma’s little neighborhood protestant church.The small hollow pencil reminds me of the short little pencils standing upright in pew hymnal rack at my childhood Baptist church. We used them to fill out the visitor card or offering envelope.
It’s not hard to see why a woman who lived hand-to-mouth would clip the pretty aquamarine buttons from an old garment to be reused on a new dress or blouse, especially if she was skilled at sewing her own clothes. The braid and clothes buttons could be used again.
Genealogically Speaking, What Have We Learned?
These “small things forgotten” may not be “evidence” of great facts, but when used with other information, buttons, pencils, and keys can reveal clues and add weight and color to family lore.
The family relocated often, rarely living in one house for more than a few years; new curtains, damaged furniture and multiple keys are likely results from frequent relocation.
Somewhere in Southern California, Arline picked up the Aaron Brothers match boxes. One box of matches might be left at your home by a guest, but two boxes were probably picked up as free useful souvenirs from a shopping trip. The location lists addresses outside her immediate community; she would have been shopping or visiting another town when she visited the store. And likewise, somewhere she picked up the religious pencil, a likely witness to church attendance.
Arline’s letters often mention sewing and selling clothing; the sewing notions and buttons support her statements and give an idea of the style and colors she favored. Single buttons are saved for garment repair, but a set of used buttons are saved for another garment. I don’t save old buttons to reuse on something new; do you? A pretty, yet modest, hat pin might have been a favorite, or set aside as too plain and simple.
Nothing in the button box is of great value, but the story told by everyday household and personal items helps me better understand my grandparents’ everyday life. Buttons saved for reuse, broken hardware for mending, curtain rings “in case,” always useful matches — these small everyday items speak of making-do with what you have; of not throwing things out because you might need them one day; of enjoying color, sparkle, and shine even if you didn’t have two coins to rub together.
Would it surprise you to know that the woman who saved all these bits of household “trash” hated housekeeping so much that she routinely piled up dirty dishes until there wasn’t a clean plate left in the house? Then, she threw them all into the rubbish bin and went off to the local Goodwill Store to buy more.
Repurposing buttons was one thing, washing dishes entirely another!
What’s in your button box?
Mary Van Coons says
Thank you for this post! I, unfortunately, have a mom who hated “old things” and threw them out so as a result don’t have much of our personal family treasures. But,, being the historical treasure hunter that I am, have collected many of other people’s button tins at estate sales. I have quite a collection now and have done many an archeological “dig” on their lives as I put these items neatly into categories. I’ve often wondered why such amazing trinkets were never cherished by the relatives and ended up on the auction block…my good fortune I guess!
Susan D. says
I found your article to be fascinating and as an English teacher I have been inspired to expand on your idea and “create” button boxes for my students to curate. I have purchased a few trinket lots from eBay so as not to disturb my inherited button boxes, and am looking forward to seeing my students research and artistically translate the historical backgrounds of some of the pieces I picked as they develop characters and stories. I would like to use your article as the basis for the lesson plan if possible. ~Sue
Your idea sounds like a new version of “student manipulatives” and I hope you come back to let us know the response from your students.
Susan D. says
Thanks! “Cross Curricular” planning is de rigueur, and the potential to tap into history, art and sociology is pretty heady. As many of my students come from families that are recent US arrivals, and have never had the pleasure of rooting though their grandparents’ dusty attics and basements, I am also interested in fostering a healthy appreciation for the kinds of vintage minutiae I have come to take for granted. I will be sure to return and let you know.
Colleen Pasquale says
Denise, Your post is great. I have my mother’s and her mother’s button boxes. I am a quilter & I have added their buttons to my quilts. I put a label on the back of each of my quilts with my name & date & location. I also ‘tell the future’ who the buttons once belonged to. Now I will look mmore closely to the other little items in those button boxes. Thanks for the suggestion!
I love your idea of using buttons on your quilts and identifying with a label. I’m a quilter too, and can see this would be a lovely way to preserve those family buttons. Thanks for sharing your idea.
Jana Last says
I want to let you know that your blog post is listed in today’s Fab Finds post at http://janasgenealogyandfamilyhistory.blogspot.com/2016/04/follow-friday-fab-finds-for-april-1-2016.html
Have a great weekend!
I have my grandmother’s buttons and my mother’s buttons. When I received them I wasn’t into family history, but sorted them all in a box with tiny little drawers, by style and colour. When I need a spare button, I go looking through the drawers and all these memories flood back. Dresses Granny made, the texture of clothes my mother wore, my favourite new clothes. Some day I must go through that box and document the memories that come back. I also inherited all my grandmother’s knitting needles – bone, old plastic and aluminum needles. I would never give them up 🙂
It must feel wonderful to connect with your grandmother this way. You’ve made me think about how I could repurpose my Grandmother Arline’s buttons… maybe something completely frivolous and fun. Thanks for the idea!
Jo Graham says
I have my granny’s sewing box and also the sewing box which belonged to one of her sisters. As well as the usual sewing items, they contain all sorts of interesting bits and pieces – badges, a propelling pencil, a buttonhook, odd earrings, mini sewing kits from hotels. My granny’s sewing box looks pretty abused in comparison to the other one – evidence of their very different personalities!
I love what you’ve discovered about the two sisters — one either loved to sew and used her box a LOT, or threw it around in disgust! Thanks for sharing this, Jo.