Buttonhooks are inexpensive, take up very little space and were made in an astonishing variety of shapes and materials
By Christopher Proudlove ©
When was the zip fastener invented? Apparently, one Elias Howe came up with what he called "an automatic continuous clothing closure" in 1851. He patented the idea but it never came to market, possibly because he was too busy with his other invention: the sewing machine.
It was a further 40 years before another American, Whitcomb Judson, patented a similar "Clasp Locker", but even that was only ever used for fasting shoes, seen from the first time at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893.
The zipper we know it today, based on interlocking teeth, was invented by an employee of Judson's, Swedish scientist Gideon Sundback in 1913.
The Birmingham company Kynoch produced the "Ready Fastener" in 1919, and the term zipper was first coined by the US company B. F. Goodrich in 1923, although it wasn't until the 1930s that the zip was used on clothes and even then it couldn't be used on jackets, because it had to be permanently joined at one end.
So, what's this to do with antiques, I hear you ask. Actually, not much, apart from explaining why there are still so many buttonhooks in the world. And that means a perfect collecting opportunity for people like me with not much room and even less money.
Fact is, you could spend a lifetime collecting buttonhooks and fit them all in a suitcase. As far as outlay is concerned, true, it's possible to pay £100 or more for something rare and special, but for the same money, you could take home six or eight of the things.
Buttonhooks are probably as old as buttons themselves but certainly from the mid-Victorian era until just after the First World War, no home was without a selection of buttonhooks and most people - men and women - carried one with them.
The reason was simple: with a pair of ladies' or men's boots having more than 50 buttons apiece, the little hooked gadget was essential if the boot wearer was to keep his or her sanity.
And it wasn't just boots. Jackets, waistcoats, gloves, spats, even corsets were held together with buttons, lines of the things, all of them small, fiddly and almost impossible to fasten with one's fingers.
As a gadget, it was simplicity itself. Basically a steel prong of varying length with a little hook on one end and a handle on the other, the buttonhook did just that.
In use, the prong was inserted through the buttonhole and the hook positioned around the shank of the button. A swift tug and a deft twist of the wrist and the button was pulled easily into place to do its duty.
Of course, the Victorians and their Edwardian relatives couldn't stop themselves from tinkering with the basic design. As a result, buttonhooks come in all shapes and sizes and make for a fascinating collection that reflects both by the demands of fashion and the wit of the inventor.
Generally speaking, large, sturdy buttonhooks were intended for doing up the buttons on boots, while the smaller, more dainty examples were for gloves. Buttonhooks of a foot or more in length, sometimes unkindly called " fat lady hooks", allowed the user to fasten his or her boots without bending over (often not easy when a person was wearing tight-laced corsets) while tiny examples no longer than your little finger were meant to be carried in a purse or waistcoat pocket on the off chance that it might come in handy.
Since buttonhooks were in common use across every class in society, they are found in all manner of materials, from wood to gold on ranging through brass, bone, ivory, tortoiseshell, mother-of-pearl, and latterly rubber and celluloid.
Doubtless it was usual to buy buttonhooks individually and for specific purposes. As people became more affluent, and travelled more frequently, retailers made it common practice to include a buttonhook in such things as cased dressing table and travelling sets, and the kits for manicure and shaving.
While I don't personally collect buttonhooks, I do have two favourite types: those carrying advertising slogans and those made by soldiers in the First World War as so-called trench art.
It was no doubt the Americans who first realised the potential of buttonhooks as a means of promoting goods or services and a great many found in today's collectors' fairs have come from that country. Even so, they can still be picked up for between £5 and £15.
Generally speaking, advertising buttonhooks are among the most simple found and were mass produced, being turned out by the hundreds of thousands which could then be ordered by a manufacturer or retailer and over stamped with his name or product. Thus a buttonhook from New York will be identical to one from New Brighton save for the name embossed on it.
Trench art buttonhooks are both charming and thought provoking. The most common were made from .303 bullets - decommissioned of course - and drilled through from base to tip to accommodate the hooked prong. Tradition has it that these were made by bored Tommies with nothing better to do with their time whilst at the Front. I don't dispute the theory, but I suspect a great many others were made in small backstreet workshops for soldiers to purchase and send home to their wives and sweethearts. Examples can be had today for £15 to £25.
Because of their relationship with shoes, many buttonhooks have shoehorn-shaped handles, the purpose of which is obvious. Another variation was the folding buttonhook, made in both steel and silver and in varying sizes - some look big enough to take stones out of horses' hooves, others, usually in silver, tiny and delicate enough for the most minute of button - which are more expensive.
Expect to pay £25 and up for a silver example, more if the hallmark says it's early, by an important maker or was assayed in Chester (the office closed in 1962) and perhaps £50 and up for one embossed elaborately with floral or foliate patterns.
Needless to say, novelty buttonhooks and other rarities can be expensive. I watched an auction the other day in which a job lot of about a dozen held up in a plastic bag sold for a staggering £350. Everyone was surprised, not least the auctioneer, by the explanation was simple: one of the buttonhooks was decorated with an enamelled portrait of the Duke of Wellington and two collectors just had to have it!
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