Beautiful, Bountiful Buttons

Gentle Readers, your Humble Proprietress is recovering from surgery and so shall share photographic images of antique and vintage buttons in lieu of a lengthy article.

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Metal and glass buttons from the Victorian and Edwardian eras.

Of buttons, Collector’s Weekly writes, “As long as human beings have needed to keep their clothing fastened, buttons have been there to do the work.” Buttons may be utilitarian, however, even well into the era of mass production, they were made to be reused on the garments of succeeding generations, resulting in little works of art that please collectors’s eyes today.

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A small Victorian carved Mother of Pearl button featuring a steel-cut lizard, probably dating to the mid-1800s.

Many still recall our grandmothers’ button jars or boxes filled with delightful miniature wonders of carved shell, shiny metal augmented with brilliant cut-steel embellishments, luminous glass, light and fancifully shaped celluloid, and bakelite of eye-watering colors. I was born in 1963, my father in 1928, and my father’s mother in 1891. Some of my earliest memories are of Nanny, as I called her, sewing on a black Singer treadle machine richly decorated with Victorian gothic revival red and gold designs. As Nanny pumped the ornate foot panel in a soothing rhythm, I played in a pool of buttons scooped from the sewing machine’s cabinet drawers. I remember, especially, bakelite raspberries, as tart red as the real fruits, and a large navy blue button shaped like a bundle of roses. I have recently obtained a white version, seen below.

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An unusual celluloid button, probably from the mid-1930s.

I’m especially fond of celluloid, a composition plastic made of cellulose dinitrate blended with pigments, fillers, camphor, and alcohol, that was invented in the mid-1800s and meant to mimic ivory. In some colors, it produces a soft, comforting glow when illuminated, rather like a glass of apple juice or beer.

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These luminous celluloid buttons tentatively date to the 1910s.
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Celluloid wafer buttons with complex Art Deco designs, circa late 1920s.
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Air-puffed and other celluloid buttons from the 1920s and 1930s.

And then there are the metal picture buttons. Oh my.

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A tiny steam train passes under a castle-bearing bridge. Tinned brass, mid-1800s.
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A trippy owl in a starry sky. Tinned brass and with cut-steel embellishments, late 1800s.
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An Italian villa, probably mid-1800s.

I’ll close with a few more interesting examples.

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A domed brass chatelaine button, 1890s.
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Carved shell and Mother of Pearl buttons, all 19th century.
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A Victorian perfume button. Ladies applied their favorite scents to these cloth-backed buttons, rather than chance marring their clothing with perfume stains.

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All buttons from my modest collection.

Funeral Fragments

“When old Francis died in 1913, Dad sent him off in a hearse pulled by four black horses followed by mutes carrying ostrich feather wands and a procession of friends and family in the deepest mourning possible.”—Barbara Nadel

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An invitation to the funeral of Ruth Evelyn Cooper, who died of pneumonia in the aftermath of influenza. She was one of upwards of 50 million people whose deaths were associated with the 1918 influenza pandemic. Ruth was born 21 June, 1898; she was the daughter of mail carrier George F. and Clara Good Cooper of Murrell, Ephrata Township, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.
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This glass slide captures one moment in the lengthy funeral proceedings of Queen Victoria, as her coffin wended its way through London, 2 February, 1901. The slide is unmarked save for the handwritten inscription, “The Queen’s Coffin.” It does not appear to be part of a commercial set and may be a personal remembrance of the day taken by someone in the crowd. (Note the two boys looking down on the passing procession from the high wall on the right.)
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This photo shows ephemera from the funeral of Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington (1 May 1769–14 Sept., 1852). It resides in the museum of Carisbrooke Castle, Isle of Wight, England. The duke was beloved for leading the defeat of Napoleon’s forces at Waterloo, 18 June, 1818. He went on to become a prime minister and is still considered to be one of Great Britain’s chiefest politicians. The handwritten note reads: “Relics of the Funeral of the late Duke of Wellington. No.1 Silver lace from the car. 2. Cloth from the Hall. 3. Silver Tissue from the Canopy. 4. Tape from the Canopy, Chelsea Hospital. 5. Autograph of the late Duke, Nov. 1852.”
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This circa-1905 albumen print captures a wintertime military funeral procession in Newport News, Virginia. It’s possible that it was headed to Hampton National Cemetery for a veteran’s burial. Behind the hearse bearing an American flag-draped casket are mourners on foot, as well as a long procession of carriages and early automobiles.
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On 11 October, 1918, a public funeral was held in Belfast, Ireland, for twelve American soldiers, victims of the Otranto disaster, and men who died from pneumonia after being landed in Ireland from a troop ship. During the march through the city from the Victoria Barracks to the City Cemetery, the coffins rode on open hearses, with a guard of honor composed of British soldiers. Glass plate image courtesy Library of Congress.
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This is one-half of a stereoview card labeled, “The cortage leaving the White House, President McKinley’s funeral, Sept. 17, 1901, Washington, DC. Underwood & Underwood, Publisher, New York, London, Toronto, Canada, Ottawa, Kansas.” William McKinley was the 25th president of the United States, serving from 4 March, 1897, until his assassination on 14 September, 1901, six months into his second term.
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Even when I was a child in the 1960s, it was still considered important to photograph the funeral floral arrangements sent by loved ones. In this albumen cabinet card, circa 1885, we see flowers and a sheaf of wheat in tribute to “Our Friend” Celia. The sheaf indicates that Celia died in old age.
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My father, James Arthur Longmore, took this black-and-white photograph at Arlington National Cemetery in the aftermath of the funeral of John F. Kennedy, 25 November, 1963. My parents were among the thousands who lined the procession’s route. I was with them in my pram, aged five months. My father held me up as the caisson carrying the president’s coffin passed so that I “could see history occurring,” he said. This picture is from later in day, after the grave had been covered and the site was open to grieving citizens.
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The bill for the 1949 funeral and burial of Mrs. Roush. The total fee was $234.75, including $150 for embalming, $12.95 for a burial dress, and $12 for an ambulance that presumably transported the body from the family home to the embalmer.
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In the wake of the funeral, this memorial shadow box may have been filled with cloth flowers to symbolize the floral tributes at this unknown decedent’s grave, as well as the hope of her eternal youth in Heaven. Courtesy Jack and Beverly Wilgus Collection.

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Unless otherwise noted, all images from the Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

New Year’s Eve: Roaring End, Rowdy Beginning

New Year’s Eve was celebrated on 31 December for the first time in 45 B.C. when the Julian calendar came into effect.

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New Year’s Eve in the 19th Century was as jolly and booze-fueled as it is in the 21st. Here, Baby New Year 1838, the first born of the reign of young Queen Victoria, enters stage right as the black-draped old woman of 1837 departs stage left, taking with her the Georgian Era.
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This New Year’s Eve party had it goin’ on. Conga lines—usually drunken Conga lines—became popular in the 1930s and remained so right through the 1950s. The Conga was originally a Cuban Carnival dance.
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Nothing says Swinging ’60s New Year’s Eve like bullet-bra and hot-pants-wearing  go-go dancers workin’ it in a giant glass of champagne.
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And nothing says white middle-class respectability like a well-coiffed matron swilling champagne from a bottle whilst standing under a crucifix. Kodachrome, circa 1958.
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No one did parties like Edwardians did parties and Edwardians did party hardy.  This photo preserves one New Year’s Eve during the Gilded Age, circa 1905.
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A high-frolic and uber-booze New Year’s Eve sometime in the late 1940s.
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Meanwhile, in New York’s Time Square, cone-hat wearing paper-horn blowers signaled midnight.
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The origins of Baby New Year go back as far as the ancient Greeks, but the rather unfortunate personifications at parties began when the Saturday Evening Post published Baby New Year covers. This diapered gentlemen attempted to be the life of the party on New Year’s Eve 1954.
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Some sincerely spooky Mummers paraded through Philadelphia on a cold New Year’s Day, 1909. Real photo postcard.
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Times Square packed with crowds in 1954. Celebrations had occurred there as early as 1904. The ball dropping tradition began two years later, in 1906.
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These swingers celebrated New Year’s Eve in a hot tub during the mid 1970s.
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No one did parties like Edwardians did parties and Edwardians did party hardy, redux. This jovial crowd assembled at Restaurant Martin on New Year’s Eve 1906.
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This woman poured champagne for her besties whilst standing on the dining room table. As one does. Circa 1930.
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Whoopin’ it up with the grandparents. Kodachrome slide, circa 1960.
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Dude in the front row was cut off immediately after this picture was taken. Kodchrome slide, mid-1950s.

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Happy New Year, Gentle Readers. Thank you for following me on this journey this far. Leave a comment, if you can. It is always deeply appreciated. And heed Benjamin Franklin, who advised, “Be at war with your vices, at peace with your neighbors, and let every new year find you a better man.”

The McGrawville Experiment

In about 1849, a mother and child were photographed in a New York town where visionaries struggled to change the world.

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1/6th-plate daguerreotype from the Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

A long inscription is penciled inside the case of this daguerreotype: “The picture of Flora and her mother, taken when she was three years old at McGrawville, Cortland Co., NY.

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The penciled inscription inside the daguerreotype case.

“I’ll think of thee at eventide/ When shines the star of love/ When Earth is garnished like a bride/ and all is joy a-bove/ and when the moon’s pale genial face/ is shed or [sic] land & sea/ and throughs [sic] around her soft light/ t’is then I think of thee. EM

“Flora & I are in the parlor as I write this, talking of the war, etc. etc. Henry …?… is buried Thursday Oct. 30th, ’62.”

The sentimental verse is likely based on “Better Moments,” by poet Nathaniel Parker Willis (1806-1867), printed in 7 July, 1827’s New-York Mirror and Ladies Literary Gazette, Volume IV, as well as and in the New Mirror’s Poems of Passion in 1843. Willis’s poem includes the lines: “I have been out at eventide/ Beneath a moonlit sky of spring/ When Earth was garnished like a bride/ And night had on her silver wing.” It is uncertain whether variants of Willis’s poem existed that included the stanza scriven in the case, or whether the writer “borrowed” a few lines of it for his or her own poetic creation.

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Charles Reason was a born in New York City of a free black family from the Caribbean. At New York Central College he was, until 1852, a professor of belles-lettres, Greek, Latin, and French, and an adjunct professor of mathematics.

McGrawville, Cortland County, New York, was once home to New York Central College, an institution of higher learning founded by the antislavery American Baptist Free Mission Society in 1848 and which held its first classes in 1849—a date congruent with the fashions worn by Flora and her mother.

The college “opened its doors to any student able to pay the modest tuition regardless of sex, race, or religion. Blacks constituted an estimated half of its enrollment,” explained historian Catherine M. Hanchett. “Some came from New England, from Virginia, from Canada West [Ontario]. Some where fugitive slaves, others newly freed. Several were members of prominent black families.”

The college employed at least three Black professors—Charles Reason (1818-1893), George Boyer Vashon (1824-1853), and William G. Allen (1820-aft. 1878), the latter of whom was at least two-thirds white, but who would cause scandal by asking for the hand of a Caucasian student, Miss Mary King.

Fittingly, the college also served as a stop along the Underground Railroad that assisted escaped slaves heading to Canada.

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This article from the Carolina Watchman of Salisbury, North Carolina, 24 February, 1853, both excoriates and libels Professor Allen and Mary King. The couple would eventually marry and leave the United States. They remained together for the rest of their lives, living in Italy, Ireland, and other European nations.

A smallpox epidemic in 1850 led to the deaths of some of the college’s African-American students—all were buried on the campus beneath tombstones extant today. Illness at the school seemed persistent, as student William Austin wrote to his family on 23 May, 1852, “There has been and is at present a considerable sickness among students but Mumps and Measles are to blame but I think they will not injure me.”

Otherwise, Austin found the nearby villages and the college bucolic. “This is a beautiful section of country, somewhat uneven, but just enough to awaken mankind to the romantic beauties of nature,” he wrote. “The boarding hall is some thirty rods [165 yards] from the college so that we have a pleasant walk to get there to meals which are at 6 1/2 o’clock in the morning, at noon, and at 5 P.M. The Ladies all room at the hall. The Gentlemen at the College.”

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Throughout its existence, New York Central College faced constant racist and misogynist criticism from both southern and northern states. It was “an institution confessedly established for the purpose, figuratively speaking, of whitening the blacks and blackening the whites,” pronounced the Buffalo Courier of 4 July, 1851, during a state funding appropriation battle. “It is said that one of the professors, an accomplished and skilled teacher, has crispy hair and a southern skin,” the Orleans Republican of Albion, New York, snickered on 9 July. The article continued with a quote from a Mr. A. A. Thompson, who was of the opinion that “‘Rather than give $4,000 [in state money] to that vile sink of pollution … they ought to give it to a mob that would raise [sic] it to the ground.’” Later in July, the Albany Argus called the college, “an institution repulsive in its objects and character.”

However, one female graduate had another opinion of the school that recognized her innate equality. Angeline Stickney wrote of her alma mater, “I feel very much attached to that institution, not withstanding all its faults, and I long to see it again, for its foundation rests upon the basis of Eternal Truth—and my heartstrings are twined around its every pillar.”

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Classes were taught on the first two floors and the men’s dormitory was on the third. Courtesy McGraw Historical Society.

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The inscription states that Flora was three when the daguerreotype was taken in McGrawville, which, when fashions are considered in tandem, makes the approximate year of her birth between 1848 and 1850. On 30 October, 1862, the writer was in the parlor with Flora, then in her teens, speaking about the ongoing Civil War. The indecipherable surname of Henry, who was buried that day, might lead to a breakthrough, but thus far no guesses of mine have yielded results.

How was Flora’s family connected to McGrawville? Was she the child of a teacher, an administrator, abolitionist Baptists, or simply part of a local Cortland family? Where did Flora and her people go after leaving McGrawville? Why did the burial of Henry raise memories of the more than decade-old daguerreotype, and what motivated the writer to pencil the poem and message in the case at that time? These questions remain stubbornly unanswered. Ω

LOL Cats of Yore

Long before Internet memes, the obsession with yowling, murderous, disdainful, aloof, and weirdly adorable felines produced trade cards that are still collected today.

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Adored today, cats were just as freakishly lovable to Victorians, as is proven by this circa-1890 blank advertising trade card.
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“Ha! Tis He. The Maltese. Me rival.” Remember the old saying, “Don’t forget to put the cat out”? There were once many more domestic felines who roamed the night, yodeling for love, murdering small animals, and creating loud mayhem when territorially challenged. This circa 1881 trade card was for Allen’s Lung Balsam, “For the cure of all affections of the lungs, throat and chest, such as consumption, colds, coughs, asthma, bronchitis, croup, whooping cough, pain or oppression of the chest, hoarseness, spitting of blood and all pulmonary diseases.” Drawn by A. B. Seeley. William H. Helfand Trade Card Collection.
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“Fair moon to thee I sing, Prithee all good fortune bring.” Here, the family cat was indeed put out for the night, with the implication that the sleepless family wished they’d done otherwise. Circa 1910.
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“Did you see me get the best of him?” Meeting the Maltese mentioned above inevitably led to this at the door come morning, waiting to be let in for a saucer of milk. Circa-1881 trade card for Gray Brothers Boots and Shoes, 56 Main Street, Galesburg, Illinois.
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Because it’s all fun and games until Fluffy, Jr., takes out the floral trumpet epergne. “Compliments of Beard & Allen, choice Family Groceries, 5 Arsenal Street.” There are multiple variations of this trading card, all showing cats engaged in acrobatics dangerous to the Victorian horror vacui . Illustration by Helena McGuire, circa 1880.
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“Tommy Dodd, Awarded 1st Prize at International Cat Show for Sweet Childlike Expression.” I have no clue what “H. R. Knight, dealer of stoves, new and second hand furniture, also furniture repaired, sign and banner painting” of Grand Rapids, Michigan, thought this would do for his business, but I did suss out some the card’s possible meanings from an internet researcher: “[T]he slang phrase Tommy Dodd turned up many meanings, some related and some clearly not: … odd or peculiar; a cemetery may be known as Tommy Dodd’s garden; thank Tommy Dodd for this or that; a phrase related to coin tossing (mid 19th century) as in tossing odds; penis; sodomite; a style of hat; a glass of beer or a walking stick. The coin-tossing allusion is the one most frequently sited and referred to. It appears that there were numerous beer hall songs devoted to Tommy Dodd and below is the chorus to one I was able to find … : ‘I’m always safe when I begin. Tommy Dodd, Tommy Dodd Glasses round, cigars as well, Tommy Dodd. Tommy Dodd, Now, my boys, let’s all go in, Tommy Dodd, Tommy Dodd, Head or tail, I’m safe to win, Hurrah for Tommy Dodd!'”
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And finally, a cat praised as the all-powerful being it was. French, circa-1915 trade card for the soap Le Chat Savon Extra. Hail, kitteh overlords, and yes, you can haz cheeseburger.

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The Silent Ones

Some pieces of mourning jewelry offer enough facts to fill volumes. Others are stealthy and secretive, unwilling to share the stories of the dead or their grief-stricken survivors.

 

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A large and beautifully carved Whitby jet mourning brooch for E.M.H., circa 1860. Purchased in Newbury, England.
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A tiny mourning or sentimental brooch, circa 1825, featuring the hair of two unknown individuals. What looks like finely woven hair inside some brooches is actually fabric called “checkered silk” inserted by the manufacturer, over which the hair relic was meant to be laid. Here, the contents of the viewing chamber clearly show the hair atop a scrap of this cloth.
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A Regency-era, gold eye-shaped memorial or sentimental brooch, circa 1800, purchased in Hungerford, England. It is more likely this is a lover’s-eye type brooch and not a mourning piece, although it is impossible to know with certainty. The brooch contains one person’s hair looped into a Celtic knot with similarly colored checkered silk behind it.
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This mourning brooch, circa 1870-1875,  features Prince of Wales hair plumes of two individuals. It is a large brooch, measuring about 3 inches wide. The brooch is pinchbeck, but beautifully done and in immaculate condition. Sadly, there is no inscription. The date I assign is early 1870s, but this is provisional and based on what I can glean from references. It may be later; it may be earlier, but I doubt by more than five years in either direction. Purchased in Hungerford, England.
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This English mourning or sentimental brooch of coral and Gold, circa 1820, contains what is likely braided locks from two people. While this may be a mourning item, coral was considered a protective substance for children. It may be that this tiny brooch, usually called a lace pin, may contain the hair of two siblings or of a child’s parents, or perhaps a child’s godparents.
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Agate mourning brooch of pinchbeck, agate, and black enamel, circa 1850. Inside is the interwoven hair of two deceased individuals. The gothic letters that encircle the viewing compartment read “In Memory Of,” a phrase used used throughout the 19th Century on mourning jewelry.

You’re A Grand Old Flag

Early images of the Stars and Stripes from the Jack and Beverly Wilgus Collection.

By Beverly Wilgus

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The earliest flag image in our collection is this ambrotype of a young Civil War soldier standing before a painted military backdrop of tents and an American flag. By necessity, it dates from the years of the conflict, between 1861 and 1864. He wears an enlisted man’s trousers, a blue-tinted cape coat, and a regulation enlisted man’s dress Hardee hat bearing the insignia “H” and “81” inside a brass infantry bugle. Five states had an 81st Infantry: Indiana, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New York. This fierce and determined Union soldier joined up from one of them. 
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This albumen stereoview card is from the 1871 “Kitty At Play” series by John P. Soule of Boston.
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Two girls stand before a large American Flag with a circular pattern of stars in this 19th Century albumen cabinet card. The girl on the left wears a flag dress and touches another flag held by her companion. There is no photographer’s imprint or location on the card. I speculate, but cannot be certain, that this dates from the Centennial celebration of 1876.
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The negative of this 1880s-era cabinet card by Swords Brothers of York, Pennsylvania, is marked “Baby Sutton.” The adorable little girl wears a dress that appears made from actual American flags. She may be a member of a theatrical family, but I have so far uncovered no performers of that name from this period.
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This tintype may portray an elderly couple and their middle-aged daughter at Baerena Park, which operated on an island in the Hudson River, 12 miles south of Albany. The number of stars suggest the image was made circa 1912. Tintypes were made at public entertainment and tourism venues of this type many decades after being supplanted by other photographic technologies.
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This undated tintype captures a little blond girl and an American flag draped over the back of a bench. It is most likely from an amusement park photo arcade during the 1910s.
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This real photo postcard of E. L. Orr shows the young man in uniform standing in front of a large American Flag. The postcard was mailed in November 1918 after the end of World War I. Orr writes on the reverse that he intends to stay in the army until spring to help in the demobilization.
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Rosemary Yacmett, the daughter of the Ohio photographer Fred Yacmett, is pictured in this real photo postcard in front of a large flag. Public records show that Rosemary was born in 1911, so it seems likely that this image celebrates the end of World War I in 1918.