There is surely something charming in seeing the smallest thing done so thoroughly. . .
~ Charles Dickens on
When you enter the old bank vault at Grandmother’s Buttons, your eyes are drawn up, away from the wall cases lined with buttons, to Dickens’ words stenciled in gold on the plaster wall. Only then, instructed by the 19th century novelist, do you begin to examine the hundreds “smallest things” on display, and marvel at the thoroughness of their detail and craftsmanship.
Susan Davis opened her tiny museum in 1995, just a year after she and her husband bought St. Francisville’s historic bank building. They had already turned the downstairs of the grand 1905 structure into a gift shop and button jewelry emporium, and the upstairs into a studio for creating the jewelry. The unusual combination of store, studio, museum and historic building has been featured in magazines such as Country Living, Victoria, Country Home, Southern Living, Southern Lady and Southern Accent.
The museum’s eight wall cases display thousands of antique fasteners dating from the 1760s through the 1940s. One case is dedicated to the ornate and finely crafted men’s buttons of the 18th century, including a rare “GW,” one of the sought-after buttons created for delegates to our first president’s inauguration. Also of note are a hand-painted set commemorating the French Revolution, a delicate Wedgwood, and an unusual “habitat” button, which captured bits of seaweed and shell under glass. Imagine how odd any of these would look on a contemporary man’s coat!
Five cases are filled with buttons from the late-19th-century era of Queen Victoria, which saw an explosion of ornate button design. These are large and deluxe versions of the antique buttons we use in our jewelry, and they are organized both by material (carved pearl, jet glass, enamel, porcelain, cut steel) and subject matter (roses, animals, Shakespeare, nursery rhymes, myths and operas to name just a few). It is amazing to see the themes Victorian women thought interesting and appropriate to sew onto their gowns: everything from spiders to dragons, castles to Greek temples.
The last two wall cases are filled with the colorful and cheerful buttons of the early 20th century: Bakelite and celluloid “goofies” in the shapes of fruit, flowers, hats, and other whimsical subjects; striking Art Deco linear abstracts; and even a set commemorating the 1939 New York World’s Fair.
Susan’s favorite case in the museum, however, contains its least valuable buttons: those from the tins belonging to her mother and both grandmothers, the buttons that started it all. Next to each tin is a portrait of its owner at age 19 and a card with Susan’s tribute to these strong women whose love, creativity and can-do spirits imbued her with the characteristics necessary to grow a business.