Victorian Charm Strings

Diana Epstein and Millicent Safro describe the once popular past time 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.

These strings of buttons, sometimes called "memory strings," were a fad of the 1860s that remained popular until 1900. Delightful stories have been handed down. One is that each friend and member of the family donate a button. Another is that a charm string was a game or rivalry, not a romantic pursuit. Gaining the thousandth button doomed the girl to spinsterhood. Another story credits the idea of charm strings to a mid-19th century newspaper competition.

In all these folklore accounts, there are similar rules and requirements for gathering the buttons: They should be one-of-a-kind, the prettiest and most brilliant available. Preferably they should be gifts from friends, suitors or family members or traded with another stringer. They should not be bought. While unfinished, the charm string was kept in plain view to inspire visitors to contribute buttons and also to boast and tell colorful stories of acquisition. "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."

As with photo albums and stereopticon views, Proustian memories were recalled and stories told by families during summer afternoons on the porch or long winter days by the fireplace rummaging through Mother's and Grandmother's button boxes. These nostalgic receptacles were the leading sources of materials for charm strings, as Victorian girls inadvertently became this country's first button collectors.

To begin a string, a young girl would tie a large button, called a touch button, onto a long string. She would then continue stringing on the very finest small glass and jeweled buttons of the period. 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.

In the mid-1960s, when our own antique-button pilgrimage began, we visited the Just Button Museum in Southington, CT (now closed), where the informative and feisty curator, Sally Luscomb, showed us an enormously long, authentic 999-button charm string. With her generous enthusiasm for teaching, Sally went over the buttons, detailing the facts and fancies of each. The string began with a large 1851 Goodyear hard rubber touch button, and the remainder were small (1/4 to 3/4 in.) randomly strung buttons, primarily glass, pewter, brass, and china. Although the buttons were individually fascinating, for us it was the mystique of the whole string, exciting in its serpentine sculpture, presenting a biography in buttons of a past life and time. Pursuing our fascination, we read about a ninety-year old woman who had acquired many of her buttons when she resided abroad. Her charm string was unusual.

Rather than different single buttons, she strung sets of from three to ten of a kind. They recalled her studies in Paris, a courtship in Venice, her marriage to an Englishman reared in China, and a honeymoon on the island of Capri.

New York City's Cooper Union Museum (now the Cooper-Hewitt Museum), in a show titled "Four Thousand and One Buttons," once exhibited a much-admired button string belonging to Emily Childs, whose father was a New York merchant. She composed a string of about 800 buttons given to her by an importer. They were variations of the same style from sample cards, in many colors and different sizes, a fascinating record of manufacture of the period.

One of the most interesting charm strings was found in an antiques shop in Pennsylvania in the 1940s. It was marked "Hinkeltown September 10, 1872, Mary Ann Fritzes Charm String." The buttons were mounted in horizontal rows on brown paper, and underneath each button miss Fritzes identified the giver and the relationship, much like a friendship quilt. This string is in the collection of the State Museum of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg.

Though we researched and searched all we could - traveling to antiques shops and flea markets hoping to find the rare and coveted charm string - one of our best finds came to us on a peaceful, uneventful day in our shop: A woman brought in a shoe box containing an original charm string with an old, wrinkled note for identification: "Button String, Over 50 years old. Amity Quakenbush." This string has nearly 1,000 delightful, small, early to mid-19th century buttons, with just enough highlights to make our collectors' hearts lurch - a tintype of a young girl, a micromosaic of Roman ruins, Jenny Lind molded in cranberry glass, a Goodyear hard rubber of two frogs dancing in delight, a French millefiori paperweight, a Civil War black glass with the intaglio word "Union," a Confederate infantry eagle, and a button rimmed with gilt picturing an early locomotive.

This article was reprinted from Bead and Button, Feb 1995. Diana Epstein and Millicent Safro are the authors of Buttons (Abrams, 1991).

More recommended reading on the subject includes:

Antique & Collectible Buttons: Identification and Values by Debra Wisniewski, 168 pp, hardcover.

The Collector's Encyclopedia of Buttons, 3rd Ed (rev), by Sally C. Luscomb, hardcover.

To purchase these or any other books about buttons, you can order online