Nestled away in the right-hand corner of the exhibit entitled “Buttons of Historical Significance” is the Keep Homestead Museum charm string. It is draped around the old casket-type trunk that it came in. It has 999 buttons and came originally from a home in Vermont.
“Charm strings” or “memory strings” became a popular pastime around the middle of the 19th century and went out of vogue around 1900. A group of young women would get together and swap buttons and stories about the buttons that they were adding to their charm strings. It was a fashionable way to spend an afternoon. There are at least two different versions of what the consequences were of making these charm strings and there were rules governing how buttons were obtained. Buttons could be given or swapped but could not be purchased by the owner. One of the lores surrounding the charm strings stated that the girls were to collect 999 buttons, and if they obtained the 1,000th one they would remain a spinster for life. Another version stated that if a girl had 999 buttons on her string, the 1,000th given to her would come from her true love and become her future husband. Whichever story you wish to believe, many of these charm strings were never finished. The partial charm strings were wrapped away in tissue paper and forgotten. They are often found among the momentos of bygone days. These small remnants are precious to button collectors, when found, and show us the many fine buttons produced in the 19th century. Often the girls sewed on small glass buttons with swirlbacks, but others did not limit themselves to size and put on a large variety of different sized buttons. This is the case of the charm string at the Keep.
The provenance that came with the charm string states that a J. H. Williams brought it from Bakersfield, Vermont. It is dated 1899. And also, inside the trunk casket lid, you can notice the counting figures. I suppose that was a way of counting the buttons, either originally or by the owner who was selling it. When it is stretched out and measured, its length is 17 feet 3 inches. It was also reinforced by heavy duty fishline at some time in the past as the original string had become fragile on the last eight inches. As you examine the pictures of the charm string, please note that the person working on the string did not hesitate to include buttons from an earlier century. I saw two Colonials from the 18th century as well as big and small tombac buttons. It is truly exciting to examine the charm string at first hand: I found three Jacksonians, many small chinas, two large calicoes, Kate Greenaway, picture buttons, irridized black glass, silver and gold lustres, rubber, mother of pearl inlay, and uniform buttons. This does not begin to cover all the different kinds of buttons on the museum charm string. As you examine the pictures, see what other buttons you can identify. It would also be interesting to discover which version of the charm string folk lore pertained to this charm string, but I suppose that story is lost forever. I still maintain that if only these buttons could talk, what a wonderful story they would tell!
The Collector’s Encyclopedia of Buttons, pg. 38, by Sally Luscomb, Crown Publishers, Inc.,
New York, NY, 1967
Who’s Got the Button? (Old and New Angles to Button Collecting) p. 26–27, 86–87
Written and illustrated by Catherine Roberts, David McKay Co., Inc., New York, NY, 1962
A very special thanks to all members from the ButtonBytes Chat Room who very kindly responded to my question about the sizes and kinds of buttons put on a charm string, and for sharing pictures to illustrate the buttons.