Button Crazy

Buttons—A Unique Time Capsule

A Note from PieceWork editor Jeane Hutchins: PieceWork, one of Stitch's sister magazines, was started in 1993 by Interweave's founder, Linda Ligon, for those who care about handwork and who value its past and present role in the ongoing human story. That is still PieceWork's mission. Projects and stories focused on a wide variety of needlework-including knitting, embroidery, needlepoint, cross-stitch, quilting, and crochet-bring the rich history of needlework to the forefront.

As sewers, you probably share my passion for buttons. I've been button crazy since I was a child and had the good fortune to have a great-uncle and -aunt who indulged me with trips several times a year to the various button factories then operating in Virginia. You could purchase enormous quantities of buttons that didn't quite make the quality inspection. I was in heaven! I could, and did, entertain myself for hours sorting through my buttons. While I no longer have that collection, I still love buttons. So I'm very pleased to share this excerpt from an article about buttons that ran in PieceWork's July/August 2011 issue.

A Thousand Buttons from a Sunken Steamboat
by Suzanne Smith Arney

Above: Calico buttons recovered from the wreckage of the steamboat Bertrand.
Above: A selection of the buttons recovered from the Bertrand on display at the DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge.

A button, factory made and measuring less than ½ inch across, seems an insignificant thing to get excited about, even if it's a pretty white porcelain one with blue patterns on it. But because this one came from the hold of a steamboat that sank 146 years ago, it claims some attention.

Take a journey back in time to the spring of 1865. The American Civil War is approaching its final desperate battles. Many war-weary Americans are looking west toward new lives. Among these is Captain Ben Goodwin, guiding the steamboat Bertrand* on her maiden voyage 2,000 miles upriver to the goldfields of Montana Territory. On the morning of April 1, she is loaded with about 250 tons of cargo, the crew, and a few adventuresome passengers.

Near the former village of De Soto, 20 miles above Omaha, a submerged log tore into the sternwheeler's hull. According to one passenger, the Bertrand, with its stores of supplies, sank in five minutes. All aboard survived, as did exaggerated stories about the riverboat's lost treasures.

Bound for Montana's goldfield towns, the Bertrand carried liquor and French champagne, lemonade, hardware and housewares, blasting powder, pickaxes, ammunition, ledgers, clothing, groceries, tools for mining and farming, canisters of mercury (used in gold refining), and more than 1,000 buttons made of shell, rubber, glass, metal, and ceramic. More than a century passed before the wreck was rediscovered in 1968 in the DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge in Missouri Valley, Iowa. None of the rumored gold or whiskey was found but much of the cargo, including nine of the mercury canisters and the buttons, was found in pristine condition and has proved to be a treasure for historians. According to Dean Knudsen, curator of the Steamboat Bertrand Collection at the DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge, the collection of more than 500,000 artifacts is a unique time capsule as "All . . . can be dated to a precise day and time."

A Hammond Turner & Sons tally-ho button recovered from the wreckage of the steamboat Bertrand.

As for the buttons, he observes, "Old buttons tend to be found only after hard use has taken a toll, but these buttons are pristine and unused, offering an insight into their manufacturing and marketing techniques. Presumably these hard-bitten miners would have cared little about fashion, and yet the cargo included a wide variety of colors, sizes, and materials in buttons."

Amazing-after 146 years, buttons still tell stories!  Find more fascinating stories as well as beautiful projects in every issue of PieceWork—start your subscription today!

Jeane Hutchins
Editor of PieceWork

P.S. Do you have rare and historical treasures in your stash? Tell us about them!

*All objects in the collection of Steamboat Bertrand Collection, DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge, Missouri Valley, Iowa. Photos courtesy of the collection, and by Dean Knudsen.

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About Jeane Hutchins

Jeane Hutchins is the editor of Interweave’s PieceWork magazine and the weekly email newsletter, Traditions Today. Prior to PieceWork, she was director of marketing for Unicorn Books. She began her publishing career after a decade spent in sales in the hotel industry. She was the editor of Yarn Market News (a trade journal) from 1982 until 1988 and the editor of the Council of American Embroiderers’ membership magazine from 1988 to 1993. She and her husband, Bob McQueen, live in Fort Collins, Colorado, with their cat, Tazio.


7 thoughts on “Button Crazy

  1. Buttons so small but tell a lot about the people and times of the past.

    Thanks for the information on this find.

    Wish I knew about this when we visted the Steamboat Arabia Museum in Kansan City Mo. Would have enjoyed seeing this and only 3 hours away.
    I guess this calls for another trip…

  2. The girls in our local school collected one and a half million buttons. One for each child killed in the Holocaust. The buttons are in nine clear plastic boxes . One box for each month of pregnancy. Buttons were collected from people who survived the holocaust , from button collections, from factories. People sent button from all over the world. There is a button from a soldier who was in an army delegation in Ausheitz a week before he was killed in battle just nine years ago. people sent stories about what a button mention to them when they were in the camps. We are proud of our pupils who took this project so seriously. Noa Lev from Efrat, Israel

  3. We have stopped at this museum and wonderful grounds twice now. I just drool over the lamps, buttons, dishes, etc. that were found and in excellent condition. The river has moved so far away from where this steamboat went down. A tiny piece of history that so few know about.

  4. Being related to the Coats & Clark family, I have bunches of buttons! Some are over 80 years old (from family members). I love to just open up the big jars & pour them out. I wish I knew what to do with them after I’m gone!

  5. When reading of this event, I couldn’t help but think of the amazing similarity to the sinking of the Steamboat Arabia 9 years earlier . Perhaps the excavation of the Bertrand was what inspired the retrieval of the Arabia. When I first heard of the Arabia I made a promise to myself to visit the museum in Kansas City which I did a
    few years ago. One visit is not enough ! The Bertrand Museum is now added to my “bucket list”.
    Thank you for this article. Fascinating tidbits from history.

  6. Fascinating; unfortunately, according to the refuge’s website, the visitor center and this museum are closed indefinitely, evidently due to damage from flooding in the area.