Thursday, March 26, 2015

Button, Button, Who's Got the Wooden Buttons?

It is difficult for an historian to generalize about the folkways of colonial New Jersey, with its two Provinces, East and West, and distinct populations of Dutch, German, Swedish, English, Scottish, Irish, African and Native American origins.  Add to that the Quaker influence in West New Jersey, and divided  Dutch Reformed congregations in East, and the overall demographic impression in the years leading up to the American Revolution is of a remarkably heterogeneous society with sub-regional characteristics and a solid middle class.

There is the odd reference in a traveler's letter to respectable Jersey women who sewed in their shifts.1

Cyder spirits such as "Jersey Lightning" or Apple Jack would be a strong candidate for the regional alcoholic beverage of the era.  Still, there is not much else that would support an endemic material culture in colonial New Jersey in the 1770s distinct from that of the wider Delaware Valley in the West, or New York and the Hudson Valley in the East.  Fully half the breeches described in New Jersey runaway notices in period newspapers were made of leather, but this was a common working class garment in other colonies.  Short gowns may have been more common in the Middle Colonies than in the Eastern ones, but not just in New Jersey.

Whenever I do come across a contemporary reference that seems to make a general claim about colonial New Jersey's material culture, I look for evidence to substantiate or refute it.  Consider this fascinating newspaper advertizement from 1770:

                Benjamin Randolph
                takes this method to inform his customers, and the public
                in general, That he has for sale, at his ware room of
                carving and cabinet work &c., at the Sign of the Golden Eagle,
                in Chestnut-street, a quantity of Wooden buttons, of various
                sorts, and intends, if encouraged, to keep a general
                assortment of them...The people of New-Jersey (in general)
                wear no other kind of buttons, and say they are the best and
                cheapest, can be bought, both for strength and beauty, and
                he doubts not that they will soon recommend themselves to
                the public in general.

                                             [The Pennsylvania Gazette Jan. 18, 1770]

Benjamin Randolph
by Charles Willson Peale
(Philadelphia Museum of Art)
Mr. Randolph was born to a Quaker family in Monmouth County, New Jersey and had set up business in Philadelphia.  He seems to be pitching his buttons to the West-New Jersey market, or perhaps also to customers in Philadelphia with a cultural or religious affinity for those on the far shore of the Delaware.  Another ad that year reportedly described his desire to purchase "apple, holly and laurel wood, hard and clear-grained" for button manufacture. 

Was he right that "The people of New-Jersey (in general) wear no other kind of buttons", or was he inflating their generality to build a new customer base, and perhaps also to appeal to domestic purchasing impulses while many British goods, including gold and silver buttons, were subject to non-importation embargo?

One place to look for verification of the wooden button claim would be those New Jersey runaway descriptions in contemporary newspapers (albeit that until 1778 all of these were published outside New Jersey).  At least for the lower third of society, these notices of absconded apprentices, prisoners, servants and slaves should provide a useful way to compare button descriptions for evidence of any discernible trends. 

As it happens, I can run that analysis, for I have been compiling a database that currently has 627 individual male New Jersey runaways with clothing descriptions between the years 1767 and 1782.  My sources are those colonial and revolutionary-era newspapers from which extracts were transcribed and published in multiple volumes of the New Jersey Archives between the late 1880s and the First World War.  The volume that covers late 1774 through 1775 contains incomplete transcriptions and substitutes ellipses for clothing descriptions for all but nine runaway notices, but the other years appear to be faithful and comprehensive reproductions of the 18th century text.

There are 142 button descriptions among the clothes worn by these 627 men that offer insight into the materials from which there were made.  Five of these are military uniform buttons (one worn by an escaped slave), leaving 137 that could conceivably represent lower class clothing worn in New Jersey during this time. 

Buttons (sometimes their notable absence) are only described for visible outer clothing - surtouts, coats, jackets and breeches.  These runaway notices tell us virtually nothing about shirt buttons, most commonly made of thread.  It is possible that only those articles of clothing that were clearly seen and well known to the subscriber were described right down to the buttons.  It is also possible that only buttons considered unusual or distinctive were included in the descriptions.  It is prudent to bear these alternative hypotheses and qualifications in mind as we examine the evidence.

Among these 137 button descriptions, I find 15 that are wooden buttons, including one fellow who wore a suit of clothes with wooden buttons on both the coat and jacket.  I also find 25 simply described as metal, and another 28 that were either white metal or pewter.  There were mohair or thread basket  buttons (13 and 6, respectively, although some of the latter may have been metal), as well as 10 brass and 8 more of yellow metal.  There were 9 references to horn, and 8 to covered buttons, though the latter could be under represented as most of these were the same color fabric as the clothing and might not have been readily discernible.  There are handful of other types of button mentioned with low representation (bone, tortoiseshell, glass, composite materials, gilt) and even one described as "Philadelphia buttons", made by one of the two local manufacturers of metal buttons in that City.

Wooden buttons, it seems, were worn by these New Jersey runaways  slightly more than some other common types but considerably less than white metal.  Even if we sorted these 15 references to wooden buttons by East and West New Jersey and compared them to other button types found on runaways from these places, it is unlikely that there would be a strong enough correlation  to back up Mr. Randolph's claim of general use.  One could further speculate that wooden buttons could have been favored by some rural Quakers in plain dress, but simple white metal cloth covered buttons were also available to them.

The most interesting conclusion from the New Jersey Runaway descriptions is not that wooden buttons were the norm, but that nearly two dozen different types of civilian button were described, some in sufficient quantities to be considered something more than rare occurrences.  Noting once again that cloth covered buttons may be under counted in these descriptions, there is much to suggest that white metal, mohair, brass, and, yes, wooden buttons were regularly worn by the lower classes in New Jersey at this time.  Perhaps the market was not as great as Mr. Randolph imagined or hoped might come to be, but there was a market nonetheless.

Benjamin Randolph went on to serve in the First Philadelphia  City Troop of horse at Trenton and Princeton in 1777, but today he is better known as a  talented colonial furniture and cabinet maker.  Thomas Jefferson's writing desk - the one on which he drafted the Declaration of Independence - is thought to have been made in May, 1776, by Benjamin Randolph.

________________________1.  De Pauw, Linda Grant, Fortunes of War: New Jersey Women and the American Revolution (Trenton, NJ, 1975).

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