A charming tale
Published: January 20, 2010
A scene from 19th-century American life: As Jenny put the string through the shank of one of her new glass buttons, she thought about a recent party where she had exchanged buttons with all her friends. She liked the one from Rose the most; it was clear glass with a gorgeous amethyst-colored back that shone through to the face of the transparent button. With the buttons that her grandmother had brought on her last visit, and the one mother bought for her in town, Jenny counted 127 buttons on her string.
Linda's granddaughter's charm string
Linda's charm string of 935 buttons
Detail from Linda's charm string
Detail from granddaughter's charm string
In the mid- to late 1800s, young girls collected buttons for charm strings. Some charm strings included other small mementos of special occasions. Thus, both the names "memory string" and "charm string" are used to describe these treasures.
According to popular practice, only buttons given or exchanged were used for charm strings; buttons purchased by the owner were not to be used on her own charm string. One story tells of a young woman attempting to collect 999 buttons, hoping that her true love would bestow the final 1,000th button, making the string complete.
Most original strings were made up primarily of small glass buttons and small vest buttons sparkling with colored glass in metal settings. However, many charm strings also included metal, pearl, china, vegetable ivory, and military uniform buttons.
The Keep Homestead Museum in Monson, Mass., in the U.S., is fortunate to own a beautiful original charm string in its collection. This string includes buttons in a wide variety of materials and sizes, with several from the 18th century. It is more than 17 feet long.
Charm strings hold an enduring attraction for me. Seven years ago, I began my own string, using buttons that date from the 1800s through the early 1900s. My only concession to modern times is the use of 50 lb.-test fishing line, instead of string, for strength. My string currently holds 935 buttons and is accompanied by a list of all the people who gave me the buttons.
When my granddaughter was born, I started a button string for her, adding one button for every week of her life. I have added buttons from all periods through the 1970s.
Linda Kelly is from Merriam, Kan., in the U.S., and has been a member of the National Button Society for 13 years. She is an avid blogger about home and creative pursuits. You can e-mail Linda at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her Web address is grammylkk-unlimitedpossibilities.blogspot.com.