Hello and welcome to my blog. What I'm doing here is documenting my personal expression of "hands-on history" from a craftsman's perspective. I've been on this path for a large part of my life and it's taken me to some interesting and challenging places. I hope to share the processes and the historically inspired objects I've crafted along this journey into our past. This adventure has deepened my appreciation for past craftsmanship and the intelligence of common place things in Early America. Besides, now I have all this cool stuff to play (teach) with.

Jim Miller

Sunday, August 14, 2011

A Great Button Story and a Shirt Tale Too

     When one considers the vast world of antique buttons, even with the myriad of styles, forms, materials and eras to choose from, it's still hard to resist the charm of the humble, unassuming "china calico". These endearing and colorfully decorated china buttons were manufactured from the 1840's to the early 1900's, in hundreds of patterns ( 326 according to The National Button Society) and a multitude of colors and sizes. In their day, they were known as fancy agate buttons but their resemblance to the patterns of calico fabric eventually led to their current title.

China Calico Buttons
Image Courtesy National Button Society

     The briefest history of calicos I can assemble is that these buttons were first produced in England by Minton and Prosser, followed by a short-lived American version, courtesy of Charles Cartlidge & Co. But by far, the largest and most successful producer was Jean-Felix Bapterosse of Briare, France. At its peak, his factory was producing almost a million china buttons a day! Today's button scholars agree that the 10,000 calico buttons salvaged from the 1856 wreck of the Steamboat Arabia, were most likley made by Bapterosse. That large a number of calico buttons, on a steamboat heading to the American frontier, is an undeniable testament to their popularity and common use. The late period china calicos were produced in Bavaria by Gehr. Redlhammer and others, in limited colors and patterns but still resembled the earlier examples.

A Sample of the Thousands of Calico Buttons From
The Steamboat Arabia Museum in Kansas City.

     So, there's your calico button history lesson but what does this have to do with the theme of my blog, you ask ? What follows is one of the best success stories of reproducing an historical object that I'm aware of. This success was achieved by one of the most dedicated and driven people I know, my wife Lindy and can now be told, after the fact, with her approval. I was very fortunate to help in this project but the credit goes to Lindy Miller as the first person to successfully replicate and market new china calico buttons in a hundred years.

     Since the early 1980's, I had occasionally purchased original calico buttons when I found them at swap meets or antique shops. It wasn't a large collection but more like a nice sampling. After I became a docent at Columbia State Historic Park in 1991, my interest in period dress lead to my eventual co-chairmanship of the costume committee. My female counterpart was Lindy Dubner, who had a long history of interest in 19th century clothing. Lindy's first encounter with calico buttons came when I showed her an original mid-19th century woman's dress that I owned. The dress was made from a rather plain, brown cotton calico but it has all of its original green calico buttons. In addition to the dress, I also brought along my sample collection of loose buttons. It's fair to say she was forever smitten by those tiny charmers and the stage was set for what was to follow.

Our Original Chile-n-Cracker's Logo

      In 1997, Lindy and I became romantically involved and decided to redirect our destinys based on mutual love and respect for each other and history. Part of that new life was to move to Nevada and pool our creative ideas and talents, forming a history driven team. We founded Chile-n-Cracker's Reproductions as a new source for accurate replica goods for use in Living History. As you might have guessed, one of our first projects was to figure out how to reproduce calico buttons. Research had provided the information on how the "original" buttons were produced but we needed to find a way to create the same product with more available technology. Everyone we talked to in the ceramics hobby encouraged experimentation as the best way to develop a technique and formula for creating buttons in quantity.

      In the 19th Century, the buttons were formed by pressing powdered clay into metal molds under tremendous pressure, following Richard Prosser's 1840 Patented process. Lindy finally decided to make her version using clay slip that she could pour into a gang mold. Each of her button blanks were stamped or impressed on the back with the letter "L" to distinguish them from originals. The next step was the removal of the casting sprues and then they were set aside to air dry. After they were bone dry, each was hand drilled with four holes and checked for shape. Next came a clear glaze and then their first firing in the kiln.

One of the Sample Books of Lindy's Buttons
The Chile-n-Cracker's Buttons Catalog Sheet ( Printed by Will Dunniway)
and a Sample Card of Buttons
Photo Lindy Miller 2011

     In the original buttons' production process, colored patterns were applied using the transfer method that employed tissue paper, printed with the desired design. The tissue was dampened and patted down on the buttons before they were fired in the kiln. Lindy chose modern, water-transfered ceramic decals, created from her artwork. These tiny decals were applied to the button blanks before the final firing fixed the design. This careful and tedious 9 step procedure was repeated over and over and over for each button, regardless of their size.

A Close-up of the Sample Card
Photo Lindy Miller 2011

     After some nice publicity in Victoria and Threads magazines, the orders started to roll in. We ran several ads in reenactor mags but the response from the living history community was surprisingly cool. Most of the early orders were for modern use on contemporary garments and jewelry. It was a little discouraging that reenactors were slow to see their value but we knew our research was solid. In fact, this is where the shirt tale begins ( remember this post's title ?) as it is a very important part of the story.

Original Calico Shirt with Calico Buttons
Formerly in the Collection of Bill Brown III
Photos Courtesy of Whitaker Auctions

     Saundra Altman of Past Patterns was a champion of Lindy's repro calico buttons from the very start. She saw the value in their use as a wonderful period choice for garments made from her accurate patterns. Sometime before Lindy and I went back east in 1999, Saundra suggested that we contact the late Bill Brown at the National Parks Center in Harpers Ferry Virginia. Mr. Brown owned an original mid-19th century man's printed calico cotton shirt with its original calico buttons. This was a great opportunity to study the use of the buttons on men's clothing. When we got to Virginia, it was worth a shot to try and see this rare bird and after only a phone call introduction, Mr. Brown was kind enough to bring the shirt to the Center for us to view the following day. It was an amazing chance to study a rare survivor and even though we weren't allowed to photograph the shirt ( Bill Brown's book, "Thoughts on Men's Shirts in America, 1750-1900" hadn't been released yet), the owner kindly provided a picture for us to have. When Mr. Brown's book was released, not only was the shirt featured but he provided measurements as well.

Close-up of Original Shirt's Cuff
Showing the Calico Button

     Years later I decided that it would be fun to make a close-copy of this shirt if I could find a cotton print that was similar enough. I had already tucked away a set of Lindy's buttons and when I finally found some repro shirting that was at least in the same family of prints, I finally made my copy. The original shirt is completely hand sewn and rather casually constructed. The pleats in the bosom vary in width enough to be almost random. Thanks to Mr. Brown's attention to details and the accuracy of the drawings in his book, I was able to pull off a pretty sweet shirt. Having a "great" set of buttons didn't hurt.

My Version of the Shirt With Matching Replica Buttons

Close-up of My Shirt's Cuff Showing Lindy's Button

Bill Brown's Book on Men's Shirts
Photo Courtesy Amazon

     This is not where the "shirt tale" ends though, a few years ago, Mr. Brown's historic clothing collection was auctioned off and we were the lucky bidders on the man's calico shirt. It is an incredible piece of history and will be studied by us for many years to come. We continue to collect original 19th Century garments with calico buttons, even though they are few and far between. The common, everyday garments of the past are rarely found today.

     As far as the final chapter on Lindy's replica calicos, after 5 years of production and thousands of buttons made one at a time, by hand, she no longer produces them. One of her favorite customers was the gift shop at the Steamboat Arabia Museum and one of her best customers was Grandmother's Buttons, a jewelry business in Louisiana. She even made a pilgrimage to Briare France to visit the Bapterosse factory, still going strong but now making tiles. I told you she was dedicated ! For those that enjoyed Lindy's efforts and are lucky enough to have some of her buttons, we thank you for your support and appreciation.

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