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2 March 2015

The button box

It's a very busy time here so I'm going to republish a couple of older posts over the next few days. It will give you something to read from my archives and it will give me extra time to do what I have to do.  This post is from October 2007.

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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. Our buttons were always in a jar - they still are; in fact, now there are several jars. I wouldn't dream of NOT saving buttons!

  2. What a lovely post! I still keep buttons and zippers just like the ladies of thrift way back then. I still mend clothing I acquired from charity shops to make them last me extra long. It`s a gift we should never lose.

  3. I can remember playing with my mother's button box as a child. I would love to go through it again, but sadly it has long since been disposed of. The mere thought of looking through a box of buttons brings back happy childhood memories for me. Such simple pleasures.

  4. Loved your post! We grew up with the extra buttons – those left over from the dresses, coats, jackets and pajamas Mother and my grandmothers made from flour sacks, end of the season remnants and those from worn out clothes. Initially they were stored in a large tea tin and then an old candy box with dividers.

    The buttons, of no interest to my sisters, were a treasure haven for my girls and me when Mother downsized to move to an apartment!! [It was difficult to decide which to leave behind.] Several have found a new life as pendant earrings, others have served as semi-equivalent replacements on our clothes, and some will be used on hairclips and ponytails, as the granddaughters grow older. My granddaughter loved being able to pick out the big buttons she wanted when I lengthened her dress by adding a contrasting piece in the middle of the skirt of her “button-down-the-front” dress. She liked it best with all contrasting buttons: bright pink, bright yellow, soft gray and pearlescent white.

    I still cut off buttons and remove zippers, buckles, etc. They come in very handy for replacements and spare me in cost (in time, gas, etc) of trip to the shop and the purchase of items that may not last as long as the salvaged items. I try to repurpose all the colorful, uniquely shaped and embellished buttons in some way or the other. I find it very relaxing to sit down and rip out a zipper or remove buttons, hooks, etc.

    The buttons are separated by color and size and stored in a fishing bait box found new at a yard sale over 2 decades ago. Sometimes the buttons of a set are strung on a string* that is tied into a loop. The zippers are sorted by length and those of a common length are safety pinned at the end, for ease in locating what I need. They are stored in a small zippered bag with a see-through plastic side. [*The cotton strings from the feed bags are washed, ends trimmed, strings are tied to one another and wound into a ball of string which has now reached 3 and a half inches. I store the ball of string in a repurposed wide-mouth plastic container, to keep it clean and contained from rolling. The family’s initial skepticism has been replaced with appreciation for and regular use of this string.]

    The convenience of having good sturdy replacements, stewardship of extending the lifespan of the buttons and zippers and the beauty of some of the old buttons are gentle reminders that our examples provide options for those who lives interface with ours in the home. Thanks your posts that interface with so many lives around the world!!

  5. Hi Rhonda,

    I bought a paper of British snaps like the ones in your photo a while back because they reminded me of my mother's sewing box! I also got a paper of hooks and eyes, and remember them being sewn onto dresses for me, and the snaps were used for my dolly clothes.

    I recently watched a BBC show on youtube I think many would love. It was called Coal House At War. It's about 2008 families who choose to go into Welsh coal miner's cottages and live as if it's 1944. The men actually work down the coal mine, the women work at home and in a munitions factory and the kids go to a 1940s school. There's no technology and a cup of tea cannot even be had without lighting the range!

    Have a great day everyone,


  6. I started reading from day one of your blog , I'm now up to May 31, 2007, very interesting reading. I will continue my reading like that. Until I am all caught up. thank you for sharing with us ways we never knew existed to make life much easier and simpler. I am looking at more ways to use natural stuff and make my own food for now from scratch. It is very rewarding I am still working full time so it's a challenge

  7. Great memories. SO sweet of her to bring things people could use. It's funny how such a little thing can bring up the memories.

  8. I still have my mother's button box which is filled with memories. I find it therapeutic running my fingers through the buttons for some reason. I save all buttons from worn out clothes as they do come in handy if not for replacing others but for making necklaces.

  9. Button boxes are the best babysitters! We played for hours with my mum's and it's the best way to keep my kids entertained when I want some time in the sewing room. I'll never forget my younger brother playing with my button stash when he was little. I had bought a jar of them from a swap meet... and he came across someone's old tooth!!

  10. Recycling posts is a fabulous idea - gives us all a 'new' read and takes some pressure off you. I learned all my colours as a little boy using mum;s button basket - it kept me enthralled for what seemed hours.

  11. My mum had several button jars and when she passed away last year I so wanted to ask my sister if I could have a jar of them they are old peanut butter jars but didn't have the heart to ask.

  12. A few years ago l got to thinking; why don't we save buttons anymore? l suppose we don't wear our clothes out anymore. Food for thought, frugal thought. Pam

  13. Thanks Rhonda I really enjoyed reading this. I take the buttons off clothes I am going to use for rags, but I find that most of my button collection has come from the 'spare' button manufacturers sew into our clothes now days.

  14. Lovely post Rhonda. I have a button drawer. I'm sure my dear Mum still has a button box.
    Love Angela (South England) UK

  15. I still have my grandmother's sewing basket, and have used it now for over 30 years. Also have my mother's button tin, an old tobacco can she covered in contact paper many years ago. When my husband and I first married, we bought our farm from his uncle and aunt who were retiring to town. They had built the house themselves in 1947 and there was one closet, when you opened it, everything tumbled out. It was packed to the gills! The aunt had saved every button, zipper, snap and usable scrap of fabric. There was even a spool of lace she'd carefully removed from her wedding slip when it wore out.
    Thank you for reminding me - it's been a good life!

  16. I don't have the same kind collection you do however I do save any buttons I find in the wash or from the clothes I buy that have an extra attached. Love my little jar of buttons.

  17. My mother in law gave me her box of buttons--mostly from the spares sold with clothes and jackets--when they moved a couple of years ago. I have found a number of treasures to use as I make clothes for my girls and it has been handy to not have to go out to buy one or two buttons. I also let the kids use them for sensory play and for making necklaces and mobiles. I buy new clothes so infrequently that I don't build up a stash of my own buttons but hers have been a lot of fun.


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