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  • The start of a button addiction

  • They appeared to me out of the blue of my bedroom ceiling. While contemplating what subject to choose for this column, the answer hovered over me as I did my morning stretches. Buttons.
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  • They appeared to me out of the blue of my bedroom ceiling. While contemplating what subject to choose for this column, the answer hovered over me as I did my morning stretches. Buttons.
    One on each fuzzy slipper my cousin, Linda, made for me. These weren't just crummy, ordinary buttons. No, these were from the rich store of my grandma Goby's collection — large, pink and floral. I decided to investigate the humble button's beginnings.
    People first used seashell buttons about 5,000 years ago for decoration only. It wasn't until the 13th century that a German hatched the bright idea of the buttonhole. Well, then we were off to the races.
    Folks appreciated buttons for their beauty and used them as symbols of rank and privilege, especially within the French court, which decreed that commoners could wear only plain buttons. It's doubtful they could have afforded the tapestry variety, anyway.
    According to one report, King Francis I, patron of the arts, labored beneath a coat adorned with — are you ready? — 13,600 buttons. I wonder how he ordered it: "Put 13,438 buttons on that ... No, better make it 13,600. I think Henry has one with 13,500." Or did he "encourage" some hapless serf to count them?
    Anyway, each was handcrafted and helped to keep artists from starving in those days.
    The Industrial Revolution introduced hand-carved dies for casting metal buttons. Artists created meticulous designs that resembled royal crests, coats of arms, animals, cathedrals and diverse status symbols. You could tell a man's station in life by the cut of his buttons.
    Buttons have come from all manner of materials: gold, silver, shell, horn, bone — even hand-painted porcelain. During America's early 20th century, new plastics such as Bakelite became the norm for many fashion accessories.
    The finest museums pay homage to the formerly not-so-humble button. The Victoria & Albert Museum in London displays silver examples and those vivid, blue Jasperware beauties from Josiah Wedgwood. The Smithsonian Institution carries various American exhibits, including a child's collection from the 1930s. The Waterbury Button Museum in Connecticut, where early-American buttons were manufactured, is an excellent choice.
    If you don't want to change out of your overalls, you could visit Dalton Stevens, The Button King, who reigns in South Carolina. Insomnia is the mother of invention. When Dalton couldn't sleep, he launched his hobby of covering unique items with buttons. He can show you his hearse, Chevrolet Chevette (same thing only smaller), casket and toilet, all resplendent 'neath colorful buttons.
    I suspected buttons were a fun and affordable collectible, so I checked the online market. I discovered a plenitude of large and lovely Victorian samples with ornate carvings and faux jewel centers in the $10 neighborhood. One filigreed "cricket cage," a small, box button from the same era, went for $31. I was relieved that one compelling, brass button with thunder and lightening depicted sold for $65. I might have been tempted.
    The more I looked, the more I recognized the creeping threat of addiction to buying objects simply for the having. I looked away, but not before jabbing the "buy it now" button.
    My set of eight metal buttons with a childlike Pan figure arrived today. You might say that I'm button-hooked. But that's another subject.
    Freelance writer Peggy Dover lives in Eagle Point. Email her at pcdover@hotmail.com.
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