The Button Bath of Death

A year or so ago, Megan found a glass jar of buttons at an garage/estate sale…not sure which.  They were tucked away in a small cabinet and all but forgotten until the cabinet needed cleaning. Not wanting to re-clutter the cabinet, they were left out and became “in the way”.  I love a nice jar of buttons, and normally it would not be a big deal EXCEPT that they were dirty, unorganized and kind of stinky.

That should have been my first clue. The jar sat around for a few days (or weeks) until I was trying to do a small “pick-up” cleaning project. Reasoning in my sometimes logical mind that un-stringing the buttons and letting them soak in a bowl of warm water with a little mild soap would certainly help loosen the accumulated dirt and hopefully get rid of that smell. They were buttons, right? Buttons are for clothes and clothes need to be washed, correct? I pulled out any buttons that were metal, so I didn’t risk anything rusting.  So while I was waiting for a batch of cookies to come out of the oven, I got the buttons into their bath. Unfortunately, cooling cookies on racks takes up a good amount of counter space and there was none to spare.  Then I went off to the fair, got home late and after cleaning up the cookie mess from the morning, I was too tired to embark on another project. A little water surely wouldn’t hurt the buttons.

Fast forward a few days. I had a cleaned up the dishes and counter from the night before and had a few minutes before leaving the house for the day, so I decided to move onto the next step of the button project – rinsing and then drying the buttons. The odd thing is that as I started to scoop the buttons into my mesh strainer and rinse them, they didn’t smell all fresh and clean like my laundry would…noooooo, they smelled oddly the same as before. I was not happy, but what’s a girl to do? It was time for this project to be finished. So I spread out some clean dish towels on the counter and placed the freshly laundered buttons out to dry. What a beautiful, albeit stinky sight! I really do love buttons and I began to admire all their beauteousness. Old buttons have a lot of charm. There are a few paper crafting companies that have used old molds to re-create vintage buttons that are beautiful, but they are costly. For just a moment I asked myself “I wonder if Megan would miss just a few of these buttons if I wisked them away and added them to my own stash”, but not wanting to risk my eternal salvation over the theft of buttons, even great vintage ones, I quickly set to the task of spreading them out to dry. But that persistant odor was really bothering me. As I began to look more closely at the buttons, I picked one up and it felt funny. It was pliable and appeared to be peeling at the edge.

When I turned it over and examined the back, the shank broke off – no great pressure, it just broke off.

The button was literally disintegrating in my hand!  What the heck?  These “Wicked Buttons of the West” were melting!  Melting!  Oh, what a world!  What a world!  Who would have thought a good little thing like water could destroy my (I mean Megan’s) beautiful buttons?

Almost immediately two words came to mind: celluloid and Bakelite.  It’s amazing how small tidbits of information can be pulled out of the gray abyss.  I didn’t know much of anything about the two categories, but I knew where to start looking:  the Internet!  So armed with my iPad, I proceeded to start my search.  I found that celluloid is a plant- based material that eventually rots, even more rapidly when left standing in water.  The poor buttons!  Here they are in all their wonderfully vintage, if somewhat worn, glory.

Meant to resemble carved ivory, these were much cheaper to the consumer, and no creature was harmed manufacturing it.  This little beauty no longer has a shank, but will surely find a home on a paper-crafted project.

I’m not positive, but I think these might be glass.

This one looks like it might be from the Bakelite batch – it looks similar to others I found online.

There were several of these purple buttons, but none of them fared well.  You can see where the disintegration process has taken it’s toll.

I think that this one resembles the recycle symbol, minus the arrow points.  It’s hard to see, but it is a dark hunter green.

I really love color, so these are fun…

…and white buttons…

but I think that these are my most favorite of all –

Isn’t it a beauty?  Luckily, there were more than one, so maybe Megan will share!

I have learned a lesson from all this…old and vintage button collectors, beware!  Most of the sites I visited suggested gently wiping your buttons with a soft cloth to polish them, not soaking them in water for days!  There is more to a button than one would have thought.  For something so small, so easily lost by loose thread, they should be treasured!  And next time you come across buttons, Megan, they should be safe…or at least safer, with me. Oh yes…and if anyone has any just laying around gathering dust, let me know.  I’d be happy to take them off your hands!

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