Posted by: Donna Cunningham | February 4, 2009

Button Jar–A Memoir?

buttonsoldbest-a2d©2009 by Donna Cunningham

 Does the term “button jar” evoke any memories for you?  If it does, I’m guessing that you were born no later than 1950 and most likely in a farm state. Me too, and on a recent visit to one of the Goodwill Superstores here in Portland, I picked up a book off the 3/$1 table that brought it all back.

Clyde Edgerton’s heartwarming 1987 novel, Walking across Egypt, is about a spunky 75 year old woman in North Carolina who takes in a delinquent boy and a mangy stray dog. When she’s finally decided to keep them both, she washes the boy’s clothes, and finding a button missing, gets out her button jar to replace it. I set the book aside at that point while an entire thread of in my childhood unraveled in my mind, as vividly as anything happening today. (You may call that sort of unraveling getting old; I call it being a writer.) 

Button jar. Oh, my. In those days we wasted nothing.  Every housewife had a button jar, and any time an article of clothing wore out, she’d cut off the buttons, tie them with a loop of thread, and put them in the jar.  She made most of her family’s clothes, you see, and the buttons would be reused. Then she’d cut up the fabric for quilt blocks–or if it was really shabby, for wash rags. Ewww! In these times of ubiquitous Bed, Bath, and Beyond outlets, we call them face cloths and don’t blink if they cost $6 and up. (I can tell you don’t believe any of this, and you wonder why we didn’t just go to Wal-Mart, but I swear it’s true.)

At that age, I was quite the little hobbyist, with collections of stamps, coins, and even postmarks from my many pen pals across the US of A. I became fascinated with my grandma’s button jar and decided to collect buttons. For whatever reason, I was a favorite with her crowd of lady friends, and she’d take me along when she visited them. While they bickered amiably over cribbage hands, I’d sort through their button jars for pretty, interesting, or particularly old buttons.

I conned–I mean, enticed–my pals into collecting buttons as well, and they’d raid all their aunts’ and great aunts’ button jars, only to lose interest and pass their hordes on to me. Best of all, my mom had a job for a while in the sewing department of J.C. Penny’s. She’d bring home sample cards of really exotic or expensive buttons. I’d be popping my own buttons with pride over my growing collection, surely the premier button aggregation in all of Monona County, Iowa.

When the number topped 2000, I entered the hobby show at the fairgrounds. My dad, a fine carpenter who built our home out of lumber salvaged from abandoned farmhouses, made framed plywood panels to show the collection off.  I sewed every one of those buttons onto pieces of twill tape.  (What’s twill tape for? Heck if I remember, just that it’s long and narrow and white.)  I won an honorable mention, but was so burnt out on sewing that from that day to this, I won’t sew a button back on if it falls off.  I just toss them into my Good Intentions drawer.

So is this just a pleasant little vignette of rural life in the 1950s, or is there a message for today’s hard times?  In those days, we didn’t talk about sustainability–wouldn’t have understood the term–we just lived it. Farmers fertilized their fields with manure from their own livestock and rotated the crops to enrich the soil.  Even those of us who lived in town grew and canned most of our own vegetables. We burned locally-grown corncobs in our heaters and cookstoves.  (Now that we’re using so much corn oil and corn syrup as well as growing corn for biodesel fuel, what on earth are they doing with all those corn cobs?)

Most of us didn’t think we were poor, we were just prudent.  And, okay, there might not be much here that an urban person could use in stretching that paycheck, but the point is that we’re probably going to have to learn a different way of life solidly based on living within our means, and maybe looking back at time like those could help us move forward.

 Do you recall a part of that way of life? Memories and comments welcome.

A CHALLENGE TO WRITING STUDENTS:  A “telling detail” is a specific phrase or sentence that evokes a time, place, mood, or sensory impression so vividly that readers feel they’re there.  I purposely larded this short essay with as many telling details as I could.  From the comments I’ m getting, the words “button jar” alone are a telling detail. Another example would be the part about using corn cobs as fuel.   And wash rags (yuck!!) are another.

If you need to learn how to include more concrete detail in your writing, you might print out this piece and highlight all the bits that were evocative in this way.  I’m planning a writing seminar in March, so if you’d be interested in knowing more, go to


  1. That’s a sweet story and a useful message, but please don’t assume that everyone who knows about button jars, or frugality for that matter, was born before 1950 and in a farm state. I have one and was born in New York City in 1954.

    The only reason I mention this is that I am concerned that there is a perceived divide between rural-urban or blue states-red states or however it may be framed that is fueled by the media and not necessarily accurate.

    I am a big city girl with an advanced degree, yet I sew for myself and my family, cook practically everything from scratch, and waste nothing, except perhaps time, on the Internet:-) I learned to cook and sew and save and so on from my maternal grandmother, who kept her family fed and clothed during the depression.

    Maybe I am an extreme case; four planets in Cancer can do that. But I know I am hardly the only NY native who has a button jar attitude.

    • Point taken, Ellen!! Glad to know that the button jar was more universal and still survives.

  2. i remember clearly my grandma’s button jar, and fun afternoons digging through it on the porch swing. i remember we re-used bread bags to pack lunches in. didn’t need to buy ziplocs. we used to play ‘store’ with grandma’s pantry cans. we didn’t need guitar hero to have fun.
    i remember reading somewhere that aquarius sometimes looks back to move forward, and maybe that is what’s needed. and thank you, donna, for your great books. my favorites.

  3. Yes, I remember button jars and still have my mom’s collections of buttons. Over the years those buttons have been used on various sweaters and vests knitted from my handspun yarns.

    We still live in a rural area, plant a huge garden every year, can and freeze fruits & vegetables and live “prudently”. We also live quite comfortably on less than $50,000 a year . . . but don’t eat out, travel or have expensive play toys.

    Oddly enough, neither my spouse or I have any planets in earth natally but our composite has four plus the ASC (Sun, Venus, Jupiter, ASC in Capricorn & Saturn in Virgo). Our relationship grounds us. 🙂

    • Fun to hear from you all. What a treasure to still have the buttons. I read a blog yesterday in which the woman was writing about her button collection, and she said that at one point, she used them to fill the bottom of a clear glass lamp, so now they’re peserved.

  4. I’m a decade younger than the 1950 cutoff, and while I live in the suburbs of a major U.S. city today, I grew up in a rural area back East on a family farm.

    I LOVED my mother’s and grandmothers’ button jars and had the best time sorting through the magical contents. I loved the sound they made as I swirled my fingers through the jar. I loved all the textures as buttons of different shapes, colors, and materials slipped across my skin. I loved sorting them into different colors and shapes and materials. Real shell buttons were my all-around favorites. Looking at all those old buttons was like a walk down memory lane, as I recalled the well-worn and much-loved outfits that had finally been recycled to some other purpose, and as I imagined the kinds of yet-to-be created outfits they might be sewn onto in the future.

    While I haven’t done as much sewing in recent decades as I once did, I still have my very own button jar chock full of old treasures and new finds from my local sewing store. It’s still a treat to run my fingers around and see what buttons I find.

    And for those who don’t (like to) sew on buttons, you can pick up an inexpensive Buttoneer fastening system at most big-chain fabric stores these days for less than $10. They’re especially helpful on loose-knit fabrics where old-fashioned hand-sewn buttons never seemed to stay put.

    Thanks for the memories!

  5. There was never a shortage of buttons at my house, either. My mom was a professional seamstress, starting her avocation and career at the tender age of six when she made her first dress. There were buttons, bolts of cloth, huge spools of thread, patterns, scissors, you name it, at our house. And there were strings everywhere! Snipped and hanging onto everything.

    I love “Walking Across Egypt.” I read it years ago and fell madly, deeply in love with the book. Such fun!

    What a bargain you found at the Goodwill, Donna. And what beautiful memories of our childhood you evoked.

    If buttons aren’t ruled by the Moon, they should be. 🙂

    • LOL!!! Yur Mom was a seamstress? Lucky gal! Good to hear from you CJ. I don’t know if buttons are ruled by the moon, though as you so aptly illustrate, they look like them. But I am pretty sure collections are ruled by the sign Cancer. And so is nostalgia.
      I’ve had so many comments on this little memoir of mine, those who had fond memories as they read it–just as mine in turn was created by that one little sentence buried in the novel. What a gift writing is. Thanks to all of you for sharing. Donna

  6. […] I’ve done a bit of that now. It started fairly innocuously, with Button Jar–A Memoir? and Important Spiritual Lessons Learned from Playing Solitaire. Then, after a conniption or two, I […]

  7. ah, button jars. My grandmother was a tailor in a factory until she was almost 70 years old, and she had a button jar too. She let me go through her buttons and take some (you can have these, but not this one) so then I had a wonderful (smaller) collection of buttons too. Sadly as I hopped between mother’s house and father’s house and off to college I lost my buttons. But your article ZOOMED me right back to those buttons, thanks

    • Ah, me, you’ve just activated my latent button greed!! A tailor’s button jar has to be a treasure trove. My mom once worked in the sewing department of JC Penny, and she used to bring home sample cards of fancy and odd buttons the salesmen used to bring them. They were pretty wild, some of them, and some quite elegant. Donna

  8. LOL. I’m from a very different generation, but my sister had a button jar (I assume from our mother making our clothes when we were small). She named the buttons and made me memorise all the names. She would berate me, as only a much older sister can, when I got any wrong or couldn’t remember their names. Now, I can only remember the one that whistled…

    This memory is very strongly attached to the kitkat-wrapper-with-pin-bombs game. It involved metal objects being left on the hall floor and a magnet on a string. You had to pick them up while leaning off the stair bannister, without collecting a bomb and ‘exploding’. My sister had a magnet inside a small plastic mouse 🙂

    • Glad you enjoyed, Tizer, and glad you shared your own memory. I covet the one tht whistled! I couldn’t have named all the buttons I wound up with–there were almost as many of them as there were people in my small rural home time. Donna

  9. How did I miss the MEMOIRS link???
    Great stuff! I grew up waaay rural and still keep a button jar…and a “RAG BAG”,–well, mine’s a basket. No paper towels here.
    I’m going to read these right through.
    Thanks so much, B

    • Thanks, Berta. I’m glad you’re enjoying them. Donna

  10. Donna, This is such fun to read. There was a time when a jar of buttons would rattle around in my sewing basket. I even have a sewing machine that we lug around with our wagon life, rarely used, but ever ready. It’s a habit (sewing) begun as a girl, and sticks to me through all of life’s whittles.

    I fit your idea of born no later than ’50, in a valley on an island that still knew ‘rural.’ This is a fantastic thread of words and images and a curious look crosses my Capricorn face, and a question, “She joins my tiny world of writers with a history that this?” Angels, angels, calling all angels!

    Wow. Thanks, Donna.

    • Neat to share it with you, Mokihana. There are a number of similar portraits like that in the category “my memoirs.” I started off this blog with a goal of dong more creative writing like this piece, but lost that strand somewhere down the line. Donna

  11. Tomorrow is my birthday. This note about button jars is my first birthday gift. I have my great-grandmother’s button jar and I still add to it occasionally. 10/04/1966. My peeps always give me little things and nudges, reminders for my birthday. Thank you!

    • Thanks, Michael, I’m glad it gave you fond memories, and happy birthday! Donna.

  12. Dear Donna,

    Circa 1954 New Englander here, thanking you for this precious story! My mother had a button can, an round red biscuit tin filled with fascinating buttons and tatting thread (my grandmother’s). The lovely rattle of it, what a memory, how I wish I had it now. Must collect my stray buttons from all over the house and give them a proper home! Thank you so much, Abby

    • Glad you enjoyed, Abby. With Pluto opposite my Cancer Sun, I’ve been quite nostalgic myself and just got back from visiting some old friends from my home town. Donna

      • Your home town in farm country — wow! I’m back in New England after living in Los Angeles twice for over 15 years total, and the UK for one year, utterly confused — Pluto is approaching my Ascendant (15 Cap), Neptune transiting my 2nd house (bought old Victorian rental house to restore — big mistake!), and my Moon has been chasing Saturn since my birthday in 2002, will be doing so until 2022! Any tips on how to live with the Saturn/Moon tango? I actually wrote to you about that on John Townley’s site after reading that yours has endured even longer! Mine’s currently moving from 7th to 8th house in progressed chart. Thanks so much, would love to read more of your “memoirs” soon! Abby (4-14-54, 12:53am, Providence, RI)

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