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20 October 2007

The button box

Tricia's husband died suddenly a few years ago and she's spent the past couple of years deciding whether she would sell the family home and move to a smaller place. She now lives in a beautiful six bedroom mansion house on the outskirts of Sydney. There is a library, chandeliers, four hectares of bushland and a heated pool set in a beautiful secluded garden with fountains. This last couple of months she's started packing up, decluttering and selling or giving away a lot of her unwanted possessions.

She drove up from Sydney in a car packed to the roof with things she wanted to give to me or to the people at our Neighbourhood Centre. The first day she was here, we took a lot of those things with us and gave them away to people whose needs include the blankets, pillows, coats etc she gave.

She also brought some things she thought I would like. One of those things was mum's button box.

We were both born in the 1940s and grew up as part of Sydney's working class in the 1950s. I guess we both did well for ourselves and although I became middle class, I have always thought of myself as working class. I feel comfortable with those values and the collective flaws and strengths that helped shape us.

Our parents left little in the way of material possessions when they died but what I have of my mother's I really cherish. She gave me the amethyst ring and pendant she was given for her 21st birthday, I have a small fruit knife that was her mother's - it has a bone handle with the name 'jean cullen' carved in it, a little green glass that she liked and some very fine Orrefors glasses that I drink from when I'm sick. I also still have a stainless steel wok she gave me in the 1960s - it must be one of the first non-Asian woks in Australia as no one (except me) used them then.

And now, the buttons.

I went through them yesterday and tried to remember where they were from. I wanted to see, with my mind's eye, the dresses and coats they would have been on. I didn't get far with that because going through the buttons brought back different memories to me. I remembered how mum, and every other woman we knew, saved buttons, string, ribbons, old zippers and fabrics 'just in case' they were needed. And that frugal philosophy was why I had that box of old buttons in front of me.

The buttons were packed in the small, brown, plastic containers that pills used to be dispensed in before the days of pre-packaged bubble packs and child-safe bottles; there were also two little glass vegemite jars. All these were held in a 1970s 'Fresh Pak' plastic box. It must have been one of the first plastic containers sold then. It is brown, with an opaque lid with the words 'Fresh Pak' on it.

I spilled each container out so I could have a good look and along with all the buttons came a flood of childhood memories. It really was a different world then. Now that I look back on it, we, and almost everyone we knew, were what we would now think of as 'poor'. But we didn't feel like that. We had everything we needed, we never went hungry, we took our place within a strong and happy community and we knew everyone, not just in our street, but also in the streets surrounding us.

I was too young and silly to know what people really focused on in their lives then but in our home we rarely talked about money or possessions. My mother taught me valuable things like caring for others, self respect and respectfulness, she told me it was good to be kind, brave and thoughtful, she demonstrated every day the value of hard work and she showed me, by example, the importance of positive role models. So although there may not have been much in the way of physical possessions given from her hand to mine, she left me with the soul of a frugal, hard-working woman and for that I will be eternally grateful.

These are the buttons I will keep. The rest of them will go back to Sydney with Tricia and probably spend the rest of their days, not as they were intended - as a functional part of clothing or furnishings - but as a silent reminder of the days when thrift was a part of almost every life and we all saved things 'just in case'.


  1. I have an old tin of buttons from my mother and her neighbor. I've added to it over the years. I recently let my kids get it out to look through.

    I have to tell you that when I found your site I thought, "Wow, this is the woman I'd want my mom to be." My mom died when I was 9, my dad also died when I was in my 20's. So anyway, I have greatly enjoyed perusing your site!


  2. Now that you mention it, I remember as a child playing with the buttons from my Mum's button tin. I will have to ask her if she still has it the next time I see her. I would love to have a look in it and see what memories it conjures up.
    I have started a stitchery of a flower fairy (that she loves) for Christmas. This will be my first stitchery and I will turn it into a pillow for her chair. I was taught when I was little and by looking at your instructions have remembered how to do it.

    Thanks again for inspiring all of us to do extra special things.


  3. Oh, Rhonda -
    My mother has a button box (or two!); my grandmother had a button box. I have had a button box for all of my adult life. My daughters would play with the, sorting, stringing, etc.
    I wonder if they have button boxes...I'll have to ask them.
    Thank you for another wonderful memory!
    Carla in North Idaho
    (I guess I could leave off the North Idaho part - I don't think there's another Carla that comments...)

  4. Rhonda,

    This was such a nice post. I can see that you are having a very nice visit with your sister.

    Thank you for sharing a little part of yourself today:)


    from Ky

  5. Hello Rhonda!
    I loved this post on the buttons. My nanna had jars and jars of buttons in her storeroom. (this strange little room that came off the family room) I clearly remember the rows and rows of bottles of pears, apricots, apples and buttons! She had a bottle for each colour.

    As a child I loved tipping them out and playing with them - just like you did yesterday!

    My Nana made us such wonderful clothes - skirts and dresses. KNitted jumpers.

    I still miss her - even though she would be well into her 100's, I wish she was here.

    thanks Rhonda.
    Duckie xxx

  6. I had tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat while reading this. I just loved it! Thanks, I gotta go call my mom! De

  7. Thank you for another beautiful post Rhonda, I too have tears in my eyes. I alos had a simple childhood and we never had much in the way of material goods, but we were loved and brought up with values. I'm the first to admit I used to spoil my children and it really didn't hit home until my Mum said it to me one day and wondered if it was because I felt I had missed out as a child. The funny thing is I never felt like I missed out I was just caught up keeping up with everyone else. As my children grow up they are learning waht I did as a child about having "enough". One of my daughters friends said to my daughter the other day that she wished her mum was like me and that she baked and made lunches every day.
    -tears and hugs-
    ps My mum is still alive and I already have her button jar - it has been colour sorted and the buttons are used on my scrapbooking pages.

  8. Wonderful post. When I was a little girl my Mom had a button box that I was allowed to get down and play with on rainy days. The memories you brought to life for me with this post is amazing. Thanks!!

  9. Beautiful story that resonates. In the last couple of days I too have been looking through my mother's button collection ..I badly need some clothes and so to maintain my frugal goals have been re-teaching myself to sew. Funny, as while sitting at the sewing machine it has reminded me of my mom and the things that you talked about...I think most of us have to recognise that regardless of differing circumstances, most of us are better of financially than our mothers and grandmothers etc..The thing is we don't know it and I suppose haven't learnt that discerning task of knowing when "enough is enough". Bella

  10. I too Loved this post. Filled me with lots of happy memories!!!!!
    I have Mom's button box. I have so many Family Treasures. I am so Blessed.
    Thank you for another Great Post.:o)

  11. Your wonderful post about the button box reminded me of the box my grandmother kept. She kept not only buttons and zippers, but also small pieces of fabric. Many years later I received a box in the mail from my Aunt, her daughter. In it was a quilt- all hand-pieced and quilted, made up of hundreds of small pieces of fabric-the fabric from the box and fabric from each dress, skirt, nightgown, and blouse she ever made me. It was like wrapping myself in the past. What a great gift she gave me by being frugal and saving and using every inch of fabric! Sharon

  12. what a lovely memory and reminder for you.

  13. I'm at least the 3rd generation of "button box" owners. I wish I had my Nana's button box. I still remember the old tin she used to keep them in.

  14. RJ, a favourite memory of mine is tipping out Grandma's button jar and matching up all the buttons and then running them through my fingers, like a movie pirate with a chestful of pearls & Spanish dubloons. These days, I have a button jar and it is a treat reserved for times when baby is asleep - the big boys love to do exactly the same as I did.

  15. I have some "touchstones" too from a beloved adopted grandmother. It is amazing how they can transport you back in time to a good place in childhood. Thank you for sharing and how wonderful of your sister to drive up with a car crammed full! Your mum must have really been special, Rhonda, and we are all benefitting from her today, through you!

  16. Aren't they such priceless gems?

    My grandmother gave me her button collection (or part of it) years ago before she passed this earth and I was always amazed by how pretty they could be.

    When I worked outside of the home and needed to dress a bit better for the office than I do for the garden today, I decided to put them to practical use, rather than just hang onto them as a collection, never seen, collecting dust.

    So when I bought an otherwise quality shirt from the charity shop (cast off because it might be missing one button) -- I took all the buttons off -- resew them all back into new positions from the bottom up, but saving the top button for one of these memories of my grandmother, to always have her with me. (She was a woman whose qualities I greatly admired, and ought to aspire to be more like... And the button worn was a reminder for me to try and live up to her standards...)

    I'm not one to wear jewelry, so considered the special button my little bit of flash!


  17. Ohhh! Buttons!

    I also have a hand-me-down tin of buttons, some dating back to the 40s. I remember playing with these beautiful buttons as a kid, and my own children love playing with them, too.

    You've given me ideas for a button-blog post. Such precious memories! Thank you!

  18. We have a similar button box as well :) And guess what, some of these are actually needed and used sometimes!

    I think that even if I become really rich by some quirk of fate (fat chance, heh :P), I'll still retain the frugal mentality, which I think isn't a bad thing at all!

  19. I used to string my grandmother's buttons when I was a little girl. I don't know who got them, but I remember a huge mayonnaise jar with them filled to the top.

    My grandfather, however, kept every single key he ever had. I have these keys in a box... they are so neat! All shapes, sizes, types, skeleton keys, etc. It was fun making a beautiful string of keys for each of my siblings and giving it to them at Christmastime along with a small stack of copies of love letters from when they were courting in the early 1900's. Priceless!


  20. Going through my mothers and my aunties button tin was one of the absolute joys of my childhood. All three of my children have enjoyed similar bliss with my button tin and jars. I never got to play with my Grannie's button tin but she had a little ornate metal box with her hair pins and combs in it from when she had long long hair. I loved that and now my mother has it.

  21. What a lovely post, Rhonda Jean! Your precious mother sounds like a wonderful lady.

    When my mom died, I received her button box and that of her mother as well. My daughter and I have more fun planning and making projects with them. This Christmas, she is making button wreaths for all of her grands and other adults she loves.

    When we get them out of the linen closet and pour them out, the pictures come to my mind and the stories begin. How I love sharing that with my daughter! Love, Q

  22. I have only just discovered your blog and love it. I am also a fan of Lady Lydia of LAF fame and her blog Home Living, which is similar to yours, in making the home and family an important part of life. I think that your entry on "the button box" is so accurate. I too think the same as you, and never thought we were"poor" until I went to work and came across a different class. Even though the people I worked with had more wealth, they also were fairly frugal - especially in comparison to today's young people. This was an excellent article and hopefully many will read it and give them food for thought. Antonia - Western Australia.

  23. Hi Rhonda,
    I loved your story. It is so true that you are only 'poor' if you feel like you are. My grandmother was a 'saver' also and I've inherited it to a large degree. Nan grew up during the depression and had days when as a little one all they had to eat was bread and dripping. Not a finer woman you'd meet, so it's not all about material wealth, as your mum also knew.

  24. Hi Rhonda,
    My mum has a button box, when I need buttons for a knitted garment or clothing, we go through the button box together and we remind each what this button was from and what that was from. Most were from my amazing grandmother, who had angel hands and created the most beautiful sewn and knitted garments. How blessed I was to have her and how blessed I am to have a mum that was influenced by her and has passed her values on to me.


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