Thursday, March 26, 2015

Button it Up!

Aaahh buttons.  They can be nostalgic.  My grandmother used to cut the buttons off old clothes and save them in a jar.  They can be showy.  Amongst other reasons, the Amish do not wear buttons on their clothes because they are to proud.  And Laura Ingalls Wilder remembered some buttons from her earliest childhood, describing gold buttons with "a little castle and a tree carved" on them or "black buttons which looked so exactly like juicy big blackberries" that she wanted to eat them.

We've kind of forgotten all the fancy buttons that once ornamented wardrobes (especially men's wardrobes) of the eighteenth century.  The standard pressed pewter, silver, gold, and brass that you can purchase through various reproduction suppliers (as seen at left) are only the tip of the iceberg.

I started on this whole line of thought today when I bumped into this picture at right.

These spherical little buttons are purported to have been witness to the swearing in of George Washington as the US's first president.  According to the Livingston family, they came from the coat worn by Chancellor Livingston that day.  Whether or not the story is true, their age suggests that they do come from that era, and they are a great example of the wide variety of decorative buttons available at the time.

Yet another button at Clermont was discovered in the 1970s as part of an archaeological dig at the site of the museum's HVAC bunker.  The dig produced thousands of artifacts, but this little guy stands out more than some of the rest.

The George Washington inaugural button was found in a layer of trash in the archaeological dig, just on top of the ash and rubble left behind when the mansion was burned in 1777.  It's a nice compliment to the Chancellor's buttons up above, since both are linked to the same event.

Buttons like this were bought as souvenirs or worn in support of America's new president at the event of the swearing in.  A number of different designs can be found in different collections these days, and some are quite fancy.  It is quite possible that Chancellor Livingston wore a full set of these buttons as he swore Washington into office.  Perhaps the glass buttons were on his waistcoat and the copper button shown here was on his frock coat?  A curious side question is: How did it come to be discarded in a waste heap near the Chancellor's mother's house not long afterwards?

Chancellor Livingston's clothes reflect a full range of buttons, including a set of very fancy-pants ones on a waistcoat and coat at the New York Historical Society.  To make this kind of button, a circle of silk was carefully hand-embroidered, cut out, and set over a button form.  They generally complimented the embroidery motif on the coat or waistcoat and were made at the same time.

Even though they are less ornate than the embroidered buttons above, thread buttons are my personal favorite. Death's Head Buttons (as seen at left) are some of the more common, and they can be spotted on a couple of Livingston portraits in the house.  Most readily, you can spot them on Philip the Signer's brown coat and black waistcoat in his portrait in the Drawing Room (below center).  They're easy to recognize since they look like a quartered circle.

I couldn't seem to find any examples of Dorset buttons (as seen at right) here at Clermont, but they were also a common thread button.  In the 19th century particularly, thread buttons became quite a fancy affair, often matching extensive passementerie on women's clothing.  
Finally, a pair of Chancellor Livingston's breeches (also in the collections of the New York Historical Society) offers a last look at common bone buttons.  Neatly rounded and finished, they give no suggestion of being rustic, as you might expect for something carved out of animal bone.  

Mostly today, buttons are a forgotten fastener on our jeans and coats and shirts.  Fancy buttons are the realm of children's clothing, scrapbookers, or novelty clothing.  

A century or two ago however, buttons were essential markers of style and taste, graced with extraordinary variety and often quite costly. In the eighteenth century, buttons were not wasted on underwear like petticoats or chemises.  Those things tied or pinned closed (straight pins, mind you.  The safety pin was a much later invention).  Buttons were proudly displayed on waistcoats, jackets, and some fine gowns.  Some (like the Chancellor's purple glass buttons) were even worth saving even when the garment they were originally attached to had long since worn out.  Others found their way into trash piles and are now battered archaeological finds.  Either way, they came in a wide variety of shapes and colors and styles--and they still do if you ever take a moment to look at them while you are getting dressed.

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