Author: Rick Butler
Buttons, these small everyday items, are ubiquitous in 19th century archaeological contexts, but they are surprisingly significant to archaeologists. Because buttons can be made from a variety of materials and can range from low in cost to finer and more expensive, their physical characteristics can help researchers date an archaeological site or offer insights into social class and economic standing. These items of personal adornment are used on a large variety of clothing: shirts, pants, dresses, vests, jackets and undergarments. This ceramic four-hole button with blue transfer print decoration in a calico pattern was among over one-thousand buttons found during archaeological excavations at the Dorchester Industrial School for Girls. This particular button is made of porcelain, which is the highest quality of period ceramic, but due to the Prosser method of dry porcelain mould manufacture it was the cheapest way to produce buttons after 1840. It is unlikely the button would have been associated with plain unpatterned fabric clothes or undergarments due to its decorative nature. Instead, it was likely a part of an outer-garment either in a complementary or matching pattern, meant to be seen and admired by those who met the wearer.
Buttons come in a variety of materials. Many early buttons were made of metals such as pewter and brass. Other possible materials include glass, bone, shell, ceramics, and, in later periods, plastic. Porcelain buttons were not mass produced until 1840, so they are much more common in archaeological contexts after this date. Due to this advent of mass production, ceramic buttons become part of the nineteenth century’s growing narrative of consumerism that we can see in the archaeological record. In fact, contemporaneous with the Dorchester Industrial School for Girls, Boston had at least one large factory owned by the Boston Button Co., producing these goods for the growing market. As an interesting side note, the Boston Button Co. factory is now an art gallery, called Boston Button Factory, which is dedicated to button inspired artworks. This calico button is one of more than 600 found in the same context in a feature identified as a privy. The presence of buttons in such large numbers in the privy suggests intentional dumping in addition to accidental loss.
The girls at the Industrial School received training in all manner of domestic work, to provide them with skills that increased their chances of employment in work “appropriate” to young women of the lower classes in Victorian Boston, once they left the School. The School had a sewing and mending department as a means of training the girls and sometimes allowed them to take on paid outside work if their school sewing tasks were complete. It is likely that this button and the many others from the privy, represent disposed refuse from these sewing projects, or perhaps a few extra buttons stored in a dress pocket falling into the outhouse during use.
Calico style fabrics were widely available to the girls at the school and would have constituted the daily dress of many of the girls. The fabrics and matching buttons came in a variety of colors: including red, green, blue, brown and yellow. Because it was such a common element in their clothing a button like this would not only have been a part of their sewing classes, but it might also represent the practical mending of their own clothes. There is also considerable evidence of the children having some access to toys and, in particular, dolls. A number of ceramic dolls were found at the School and it is possible that the girls made and mended clothes for their dolls. This button may have been a part of hand-made clothing that once adorned a student’s favored plaything.
Since buttons were mass-produced and available in a wide variety of styles, any place conducting regular commercial sewing or extensive training in this task would quickly accumulate a number of surplus buttons. And, because they were mass-produced, they were disposable goods and not worth keeping around for reuse. Interestingly, like many mass-produced goods, buttons could intersect the lives of these girls in many ways. One of the students, Della Collins, eventually married a man who worked as a night watchmen at a button factory. This button is in many ways representative of the consumer culture that these girls were born into and their futures in the domestic labor for which the Industrial School prepared them.