Saturday, August 4, 2012

Victorian Charm Strings

Here's something that some of you may find interesting about charm quilts, since that is what we're making this month -  a small charm coins quilt. Pat Nickols said "It is generally accepted that the idea of making Charm Quilts grew out of the Victorian fad of charm strings, one-of-a-kind button collections that were strung together on string, sometimes also called friendship strings. One myth behind these collections was that if a young woman could collect 999 different buttons, the 1000th would be brought to her by her one true love." 

I wish I had some Victorian buttons to share with you. I would love to begin a collection of antique buttons someday but all I have now are a few new buttons that resemble old ones. All of you may begin collecting old buttons after you read this.

I also found a great article written by Diana Epstein and Millicent Safro in which they describe this once popular pastime of charm strings in Victorian America.
"In Stories of Mother Goose, little Tommy Tucker says, 'You know what a charm string is. Just ever so many pretty buttons strung together and worn around your neck.' Nineteenth century folk wisdom had it that a girl should acquire 999 buttons on a string. When she added the thousandth, she would meet her Prince Charming."

Button strings were also sometimes called "memory strings," popular in the 1860s until around 1900.  Apparently, there were rules and requirements for collecting the buttons. Only the prettiest, one-of-a-kind and most brilliant should be used in a collection. The buttons were not supposed to be bought, but gifts from friends, suitors or family members or traded with another button stringer. Charm strings were kept out in plain view to encourage visitors to contribute buttons and so that others might ask about the stories related to them as they were collected. "This button was given by Aunt Abigail from the gown she wore to the Inaugural Ball," or "this button was from Grandfather's Civil War uniform."

Epstein and Safro continue -

"Young girls would begin their string by tying a large button, called a touch button, onto a long string. Original charm strings of the late 19th century had a large quantity of very small and dainty glass buttons, including early paperweight buttons, as well as small Victorian metals of the period. Some charm strings also included meaningful amulets and tiny objects with family or school-day associations, such as charms, coins, baskets made from nut or fruit pits, miniature dolls' arms and legs, or religious medals.

"Charm strings with a thousand buttons are seldom found today. In fact, most were never finished. That is they contained far fewer than the legendary 999 or 1000 buttons. Many strings had difficulty surviving storage or were divided by families wanting to share mementos. Or they were cut by collectors who couldn't resist picking up some of the rare and valuable buttons on them, which they then grouped with other buttons of the same materials and type.

"But should you be lucky enough to happen upon a charm string - perhaps with the needle still attached - the primary guideline for determining if it is original and authentically intact is to consider the age and condition of the string or wire and to determine if all the buttons were made during the proper period. Whether enjoyed for its visual abundance or as a consulting library of 19th century buttons, the charm string is an American folk art and is, to put it simply, charming."

(From Bead and Button, Feb 1995. Diana Epstein and Millicent Safro are the authors of Buttons (Abrams, 1991)).

Another source I found said that during the latter part of the nineteenth century young women would use their collection of buttons as an excuse to approach a certain young man and ask for a button which would then set the stage for the young man perhaps becoming a suitor. I wonder what single young women nowadays would think of this tactic?? I'll suggest it to my daughter and her friends . . . . I've got some buttons.

Here's a blog that has photos of an antique string of buttons and stories to go with it.


  1. How very interesting. I can't believe I had never heard of these button charm strings. Thank you.

  2. I have never heard of these charm strings, thanks for the info. Grandma Rita

  3. What a great history lesson.
    Melody :*)

  4. Thank you, nice to know some history behind button strings. I have been collecting buttons for years and have some really nice glass ones, but I have never made anything with them. I enjoy stringing the non valuable coloured ones and making myself necklaces to wear - which always get lovely compliments!

  5. Great story. Love your sewing kit, is that one of your patterns? Would love to have it.

  6. A great post, I really enjoyed reading about the history of button strings, haven't heard about them before!!

  7. Great post! I loved hearing about the button charm strings! I had never heard of them before.

  8. this was a wonderful post! I have never seen one.

  9. Kathy, what a charming & informative post, i was mesmerised!! i happen to collect buttons and i've got several antique 19th century buttons with intricate patterns which i stored in vintage mason jars. I think they'd look lovely strung up :)) cheers...Marian

  10. J'avais jamais entendu parlé de cette chaine de boutons.
    J'ai beaucoup de boutons et maintenant je continuer à les ramasser.
    Souvent nous en voyons chez des antiquaire.
    Merci pour votre ideé.

  11. Such an interesting story Kathy :) I have a 'thing' for buttons too.

  12. Thanks for this interesting story. I can remember my favorite past time while visiting my grandmothers house was to play with all the buttons in her button jar. Oh how I wish I had that jar of buttons today. Karen/IL.

  13. Marian - you have to do this with your buttons and then show us!

    Karen, that mason jar in the last photo holds buttons from my mom - I know some were taken from my childhood dresses before she threw them away or used them for dust cloths.

  14. Thank you for the very interesting history lesson. I have a very minimal collection of buttons. I keep them stored in old blue canning jars which were some of the first items I collected. Then came the buttons!

  15. Kathy,
    How about a button exchange? So we can all have a button charm string.

  16. Oooh Julia - do you happen to have any buttons to trade with me LOL? We'll go antiquing for buttons someday . . .

  17. Such fabulous story.My grandma had a vase with buttons,

  18. Kathy, thank you so much for this post and the history of charm strings, I found it to be very interesting. It is really hard to find buttons these days in thrift/antique shops but I am constantly on the lookout! Again, thanks for sharing.


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