This is a story about a button. It’s not a true story. It has nothing at all to do with fact. I made up it to entertain myself and you, dear readers, as I contemplated the lost knowledge of the ages and concluded that some of us are compelled to fill in the blanks of the great cosmic crossword puzzle found in that never-ending newspaper of the soul. Consider it my holiday gift to all of you who are so supportive of By Hand.
This, then, is the story:
The little white button began its life as a scallop shell washed ashore on the morning tide of a South Sea Island where the beaches were littered with such shells, glowing like pearls, glowing like the island itself.
It was the end of 19th century. The women of the island gathered tens of thousands of seashells each year. On this day, a little girl with long black hair, wearing a sarong of bright green batik fabric, helped her mother gather the shells. The little girl loved the shells and each one she picked up she kissed before dropping it into the sack her mother carried.
The little girl liked to think about the places “her” seashells went after being traded to the captain of the schooner that came to the island every few months. She knew the shells went into the hold of the ship, that the ship sailed across the deep blue ocean to a place called America. At that point, imagination failed her, but she felt certain that the seashells, bearing her kisses, would bring joy to those who received them.
When the captain of the schooner returned to Boston, he sold the cargo of seashells to clothing manufacturers who owned mills in Lewiston and Auburn.
The mill owners then sent the sacks of seashells to factories where skilled men operated punches that cut from the shells many round shapes in various sizes, some with fluted edges. Other men operated drills, which made two holes in each of the newly minted buttons. Then, the buttons were shoveled into a machine that polished and smoothed them. The finished buttons glowed with the faraway iridescence of the island from which they had come, and although the men knew nothing of the origins of the buttons, they loved that glow.
At the factory, little boys sat at tables picking out buttons that were misshapen, had improperly aligned holes or rough edges. The good buttons they scooped into big white canvas sacks they tied with twine when the sacks were full. The little boys loved the sound of the buttons cascading into the sacks. It reminded them of the tumbling voice of the Androscoggin River, outside in the sunshine.
In the clothing factories, where the buttons went next, women labored over sewing machines stitching long white petticoats gathered and tucked, and frosted here and there with edgings and insertions of white lace. It was not easy work. The mill was very noisy and the air was dusty with lint. Most of the women kept their jobs only until they married, glad to trade labor at the machines for the happier labor of wives and mothers, for at home they were their own bosses.
Girls as young as 10 years old also worked at the clothing factory. They sat in long rows in a room away from the sewing machines, where it was quieter, but not much. With needle and thread and careful, neat stitches, the little girls sewed buttons on the waistbands of the petticoats.
Blythe Swann was one of these button girls. She worked from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. six days a week. She worked because her father had died and there were two little sisters and two little brothers at home. Even though Blythe’s mother worked in a nearby spinning mill, what she earned alone was not enough to feed and clothe five children.
Blythe earned 50 cents a day if she sewed buttons on 100 petticoats. But she rarely sewed on more than 75 buttons. That meant she received only 40 cents a day for her labor, or $2.40 a week. It wasn’t much, but it helped and her mother was grateful for it.
One day, when Blythe was sewing a button on a petticoat, she noticed a tear in its hem and a brown smear on its front. She brought the flaws to the attention of the foreman. The foreman saw at once that neither the tear nor the stain resulted from careless handling on Blythe’s part. He told Blythe she could keep the petticoat.
Blythe was thrilled by her good fortune. That Sunday she repaired the tear and bleached away most of the stain. She gave the petticoat to her mother, who cried with joy, for she had not owned such a pretty bit of clothing for a long time. Mrs. Swann wore the petticoat only on special occasions so it stayed good for years.
In time, the fortunes of the family improved. Mrs. Swann married a kind man who owned a good business. Blythe no longer had to work and went to school instead.
Blythe’s mother kept the petticoat even after things in her life improved because she believed it brought good luck.
When Blythe grew up, she wore the petticoat on her wedding day. Twenty-five years later, her daughter married and she, too, wore the petticoat on her wedding day.
Now, in the year 2000, it is the turn of another Blythe, a great-great-granddaughter, to wear the petticoat, but the garment is fragile now, and so weighted with the history of its days it cannot endure another trip down the aisle. Her mother snipped the button from the petticoat, kissed it and sewed it to the bride’s wedding dress.
This bride, this Blythe of the 21st century, will honeymoon with her groom on an island where the foaming blue sea scatters the pale beaches with scallop shells, the same beach where once, long ago, a little girl kissed the seashell that was sent away to become the treasured heirloom button on Blythe’s wedding dress.
Looking for a standout last-minute Christmas decoration or something you can craft now to use next year? Visit www.craftychica.com to watch a video demonstrating how to make a light tree using a metal tomato cage, webbed material and twinkle lights. Some fun!
Have a merry!