Grandma’s buttons engraved by Grandpa
On the surface, the box of old sewing notions seemed rather innocuous and commonplace. Decades ago, sewing was a woman’s pastime, so the instruments from that era tend to show up on the auction tables pretty often.
But that doesn’t deter me. I always check out sewing boxes hoping to find some little treasure buried deep inside – like the buttons I’ve seen on some websites, so beautiful that they look like jewels. Some of the ones I find are pretty but not exciting.
So, I dug through this makeshift sewing box – an old Fralinger’s salt water taffy box from Atlantic City – through flat after flat of seam binding in too many colors and too many sizes – some in packages, some not. The box was revealing nothing new or different except more seam binding – how much does one person need? – two paper scissor sharpeners, darning eggs, mending threads, metal snaps, elastic and sundry other items that held no interest for me.
Then I came across an envelope with white thread looped around it. On the outside, someone had written a pencil message in cursive. I opened the envelope, and pulled out a string of small brown mother of pearl buttons, medium white mother of pearl buttons, a large mother of pearl leaf pin with dark stones and a broken clasp, and a tarnished pendant cross.
The envelope contained six white and 15 brown buttons, one of which was slightly larger with a different design. All of the items had etchings that were not overly detailed, but not necessarily plain and simple, either. I assumed they were commercially made because they looked like all the other mother of pearl buttons I had found in sewing boxes.
So I wasn’t very thrilled. Then I read the message on the envelope:
“These pearl buttons were all engraved by Grandpa. The cross he made for Grandma before they were married. … the back of cross which he engraved. also the pearl buckle he made for Grandma for a hat.”
A crease in the envelope marred the words leading up to mention of the cross. On the back of the cross was inscribed “H.W. to M.B.” The front had engraved decorations.
I got excited about this tiny bit of a couple’s history that had unceremoniously been discarded on the auction table. Likely, family members saw only an old box of sewing items that no longer had any use or held any value, and didn’t bother to comb through the stuff. I understood their lack of interest. Who sews anymore? By not checking, though, they threw away a little bit of their family’s history.
The buttons were special because of the provenance, that small message written on the front of the faded envelope. All the items were sweet remnants of a couple’s life, simple things made rich by the hands of a man who wanted to first please a girlfriend and then a wife who apparently loved to sew.
Seeing them made me wonder about the story of this couple’s life: who they were, where they lived, and whether engraving was his job? Who chronicled the history of the items and why? Was it a daughter who wanted the descendants to understand the importance of something so benign and functional that it could be dismissed? Did the wife use any of the buttons or just put them away as a keepsake?
Discoveries like these make auction-going so fascinating to me. Something as simple as a message on an envelope can open up a world of possibilities about who these people were.
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