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The Button Box
by [?]

“Have you,” said I, “anything like the ones left?”–and I held out to my wife a shirt just back from the laundry, and minus a strategic button.

“I’ll look in my button box and see,” she answered, taking the shirt.

Her button box! I did not know she had one, and followed her into her retreat to see it. But alas! it was a grievous disappointment, being nothing but a drawer set in some sort of a fancy contraption of chintz-covered pasteboard, like a toy bureau, which stood on her work table. No doubt it contained buttons, and was serviceable. But a button box! To call it that were to libel a noble institution of an elder day.

As I waited for the restoration of my shirt I thought tenderly of the button box of my childhood. It was no dinky six-by-four-inch pasteboard drawer, not two inches deep–no, sir! It was a cylindrical wooden box of the substantial and finished workmanship which went into even such humble things as a butter box a century ago, for mother had inherited it from her mother. It must once have contained ten pounds of butter, but all traces of its original service had long disappeared. The drum, of very thin, tough wood, which had kept its shape uncracked, had been polished a dark nut brown by countless hands. The bottom and cover, of pine, were darkened, too, but without polish. This box dwelt on the second shelf of the old what-not, which, in turn, stood in the closet passage underneath the stairs. When any accident befell our garment fastenings, “Go and get the button box,” mother said, as she reached for her needle. Or, on rainy days, when we grew more and more restless and all other devices failed, “You may go and get the button box,” mother would say, and we were solaced till supper time.

No modern patent sewing-table receptacle could possibly hold one quarter of the contents of that button box, the accumulation of at least three generations. It was heavy, and having no handles, you had to grasp it with open palms on either side–hence the polish. It rattled when taken down from its shelf, and the very first thing you did when the lid was off was to plunge your two hands down into the mass, and let fistfuls of buttons trickle through your fingers.

Sometimes we played it was a treasure chest, and these buttons were Spanish doubloons. Sometimes we trickled them just for the cool feel of it, the sound of the rattle, the sensation of plunging fingers into the oddly liquid mass. There were great steel buttons, little pearl buttons, white bone buttons, black suspender buttons, cloth buttons, silk buttons, crocheted buttons, elongated crystal buttons (which we held to the light “to make prisms”), lovely agate buttons, brass military buttons with the U. S. eagle upon them, wooden buttons, either once covered or yet to be covered, shoe buttons (which invariably were in practical demand and invariably had sunk to the bottom of the box), strange great buttons from some long-forgotten garment of grandmother’s, familiar buttons from some newly remembered garment of our own.

It seems odd, when I think of it now, the endless delight we children got just from the contemplation and discussion of those buttons. Sometimes, of course, we picked out the suitable ones, and strung them in long chains. Sometimes we used them for counters in games. But often we just turned them over and over, or tipped them out on a paper spread on the floor, and from the hints they gave us reconstructed ancient garments or recalled forgotten clothes of our own.

“Oh, that one used to be on my winter jacket!”

“Look, here’s one of papa’s pants buttons–it says ‘Macullar and Parker’ on it!”

“Hi, there’s my old brown overcoat!”

“Oh, dear, I wish I still had that pretty gray suit, with those steel buttons on it!”

The silly talk of children–and how like some conversations the propinquity of piazzas has since forced me to listen to!

To find just the button she wanted was sometimes a long task for mother, and father, it must be admitted, had varied the proverbial needle simile for our domestic establishment, to read, “like hunting for a button in your mother’s button box.” But still the odd buttons continued to go in, and only the ones needed came permanently out. You never could tell, to be sure, when the most unlikely button would come in handy. Sometimes there were days when the village dress-maker arrived after breakfast and remained till almost supper time, converting the upstairs front chamber into a maze of threads and snippings, and requisitioning the button box in long searches for “a set of six”. That was a fine game! Sometimes it was easy. Sometimes only five could be found of the type she particularly desired. But never did the box fail completely; always there were enough of some button that, she said, without dropping the pins from her mouth, would do, “though it ain’t quite what I wanted.”

All this flashed through my memory as I waited for my wife to reestablish connections on my shirt. As she finally finished, and pushed in her silly little drawer, I said:

“Do you call that thing a button box? Why don’t you have a real one?”

“That’s quite large enough when you have to find a match,” said she, “and too large when you drop it.”

Women are practical creatures; there is no sentiment in them. Their alleged possession of it is the most spurious of all the arguments against equal suffrage.