This is an edited extract from All Buttons Great and Small by Lucy Godoroja.
YOU MEAN BUTTONS? LIKE THESE?
DO YOU THINK THAT’S A BUSINESS?
- COMMONWEALTH BANK OF AUSTRALIA BANK MANAGER, TO AUTHOR
Throughout its history, the button has reinvented itself. It has been a simple fastener of basic need; a non-functional decorative expression adding to the design of a garment; a marvel of creative design desired by the elite. It reached a period in history where laws had regulated its use, only to be undone by the Industrial Revolution and its ability to be mass-produced for the greater population.
It spurred the imaginations of scientists and engineers as they strove to create new materials and methods of manufacture, materials that could withstand the conditions of use and laundering, and manufacturing that could prove most cost effective.
Throughout its journey, one common conclusion remains: it is a small object, often of necessity, that has entranced its makers the world over.
I am not a collector of buttons. I have always, however, been enthralled by them, and over the past 35 years millions of buttons have passed through my hands.
Unlike many people, I did not discover them while poring through my grandmother’s button box. Both of my grandmothers were refugees who fled their countries of birth, crossing a continent looking for a home. My parents were both born stateless in a country that did not want them, and lived into their adult lives under these conditions, until together they chose to seek a country where they would feel secure. Because of this, there were few items they took with them, and certainly a box of buttons was not among them.
For many people, myself included, buttons have a way of recollecting past events, sparking memories. As I look at contemporary manufactured buttons, they can be reminders of the past.
New cloisonné styles remind me of the Fabergé eggs of Imperial Russia, while Soviet era military ones spark my grandmothers’ flights. Chinese writing depicts the place where my parents were born and spent their youth, with occupation by, and then study in, Japan – represented by the wonderful interpretation of Hokusai’s famous woodblock print. Tagua nut and coconut buttons represent the possibility of a home in Brazil, only to find eventual sanctuary in Canada. And my own journey, where buttons established my passion for details.
I was introduced to the fascination of buttons from the age of five during my frequent trips to the fabric store, where my mother would search out fabric for the garments she would make for herself and for us children. While she was busy with her task, I would explore the fascinating ‘notions’ (or haberdashery) section, captivated by the revolving stands of buttons sewn onto cards in neat rows, ordered by colour, in a multitude of styles. I watched my mother sew, and to my delight she allowed me to use her precious sewing machine.
When I was old enough, I would take my own trips to the fabric stores, my favourite being Dressew on the east side of downtown Vancouver, Canada. Here, two floors of wonder stood ready for my project, offering fabrics and patterns on one floor and every embellishment under the sun on the other. I would peruse the pattern books, searching for suitable designs that would hopefully include buttons, and then make my way downstairs to the treasure trove that waited below.
Life has an interesting way of taking you places where you never thought you would go. I was a capable, but self-taught sewer, and tried my hand at a professional career. I lasted three days. I watched with horror and amazement while the couturier tore seams apart from luxurious fabrics in order to re-sew them to a different line, and when I couldn’t bring myself to do it as fast as she could (for fear of ruining the fabric), she fired me.
My next endeavour was in graphic design. I enjoyed my job, but at the time couldn’t find fulfillment. I studied to become an architectural/structural and civil design draftsman, and worked for a utility company drawing hydroelectric dams. I loved it; using my brain and my creativity together was very satisfying.
Unfortunately, due to economic circumstances, I lost my job when my department was whittled down from 300 employees to eight. In a state of limbo, I moved continents and continued my drafting career, but a year later followed my heart to another continent where my occupation was put on hold.
During this time, I met and started working with a neighbour, Thea de Boer, who started a button shop, the Knopen Winkel (Buttons Shop) in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. When the time came to leave Amsterdam, I was convinced to open a similar shop, and upon my return to Australia I did just that.
Hence, I found my way back to the world of buttons that had so enthralled me as a child.
Here began my education of the button. Having started in Europe in the mid-1980s, I was surrounded by innovations in colour and design from contemporary manufacturers as well as the vast and varied amounts of vintage buttons then available throughout the flea markets of Europe.
When I came to start my own button business, I was lucky enough to travel to Milano, Italy, where I was pointed in the direction of a button merchant. Upon meeting with her, I found only costume jewellery, some made from buttons, some not.
I asked her if she had any buttons to sell, at which she replied, ‘Oh, only old ones.’ I was most enchanted, and she sent her employee to fetch the sample cards, which, unbeknown to me, were two hours away.
We met four hours later, and I purchased a vast quantity of different styles of late nineteenth to early twentieth century Czech glass buttons, as well as the same era in pressed metal with coloured and clear diamantés. This was the collection that I started with when I first opened the doors of All Buttons Great and Small in 1989, incredible works of art in miniature.
In a year’s time, I would once again cross the globe to look for more finds. I was to return to Italy to purchase the small remainder of the initial hoard, driving by car from the Netherlands. In the days before GPS, a combination of the map and Italian signage took us on an unplanned side trip, and we found ourselves in the middle of a field in the dead of night.
Deciding to sleep in the car, we awoke to the rumblings of the tractor as the farmer started his daily work; we left with a thank you and a wave goodbye. The warehouse was situated in the Riviera town of Savona where the address took us to a palazzo in the piazza of the old town.
Being dishevelled and unwashed, we made our way to the beach to rent a cabana and purchase shower tokens, and prepare for our meeting with our lovely proprietress. Unfortunately, a burst water main had rendered the showers without water, and we were forced to use the open bottle of drinking water we had on hand to freshen up as best we could.
In 1992, on another such trip, we headed to Prague as a side trip while visiting our usual European haunts. We arrived in the city, as yet to be discovered by the masses that were later to come, and made our way to the main square, finding buildings still riddled with bullet holes, grey and dilapidated from lack of funds to improve them. A small market was underway.
Of course, I found some buttons. I pride myself in always attempting to learn a bit of the language of the country I am travelling in, but found myself without any knowledge of, or phrasebook in, Czech. How to ask about these buttons, the maker, the story, and the price?
The young man at the stall was also uneasy as to how to proceed, until we started rattling off languages that we both might know. This is how we progressed – with the conversations between he and myself in Russian, the conversations between he and my partner in German, and with the conversations between ourselves in English or Dutch, both languages we had in common.
Word soon spread among the other stallholders of this hilarity, and we were soon surrounded by a small mob, encouraging the young man and congratulating us for supporting his endeavour.
It turned out the ceramic buttons were made by his two sisters, Magdalena Dyntarova and Štepanka Denkova, who lived not far from Prague near the community of Davle, once a major producer of buttons during World War II. They started their ceramic button-making business in 1990, wanting to reignite the old button-making traditions of the past.
I find it handy to know at least the relevant phrases of various languages when buying buttons (sizes, colours, numbers) and also polite to make the attempt. I am always graciously complimented, regardless of my sometimes poor pronunciation, and especially when it turns out my host speaks my language fluently.
A trip to Japan found me poring through the phrasebook; armed and ready, I boldly stepped forward and asked the assistant at the counter for the ‘Botan, onegai shimasu’ from which she answered, ‘Ikutsu?’ — how many. When I again, boldly, answered ‘Zenbu’, she replied ‘Zenbu?’ to which I shook my head in agreement. I was to take all of the quantity of the styles I had chosen.
My knowledge continued to grow by visiting factory floors and small workshops, where new creations were made, and by having conversations with sellers whose family businesses were connected with the industry from days gone by.
As someone with a curious mind, I strove to continue the conversations with even more makers and sellers, and when that wasn’t enough I spent hours in libraries, eventually creating a vast library of my own on the subject. I have learned so much from these books and from the collectors who wrote them, but I am also interested in the materials the buttons are made from and their method of manufacture.
As I visited museum collections and came across smugglers’ buttons with secret openings to hide illicit goods, I was reminded of a Mexican silver ring with a hidden compartment under the turquoise stone, given to me by a dear lifelong friend.
I read stories of Allied World War II pilots and paratroopers who were equipped with small escape compasses concealed in their uniform buttons – the fancy metal buttons where the top unscrewed (British and Canadian forces) or was hinged (American forces) to reveal a tiny compass. The unexceptional black Bakelite buttons with metal shank and three dots on the back; when hung from a string, two dots side by side pointed north, one dot south. Another using two trouser buttons in combination, so that when placed on top of each other the top would rotate to point the way.
Friends and customers started bringing me their button tins, often inherited from passed loved ones, or from their own collection – items they were loath to throw away yet happy to pass on to someone who appreciated their subtleties. Here, I found an array of styles, sizes, shapes and colours, and from many different eras.
My mind would wander as I thought about the life they had lived, adorning adults’ clothing, children’s clothing, menswear, ladieswear, formal, workaday, uniforms. Some buttons I reminisced about, evoking memories of clothes once made or worn, how my own family had worn similar buttons on a faraway continent across the sea. About how these buttons travelled the world, as export stock, imported by haberdashers everywhere.
I am more likely to share these treasures with others, either in the form of collages or other art on display, as historical examples when warranted, or in the community chest 5c basket.
There seems to be a calming element for people in sifting through an accumulation of buttons, carefully scrutinising each one, looking for a set that may or may not be there, the thrill of the hunt. This is perhaps how people become button collectors, either seriously committed to finding certain types or just gathering them for future projects, storing them for ‘just in case’ moments of need. The latter become unwitting collectors, for who in their right mind would throw such a useful object away?