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!
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.