BROOKLIN, Maine – When Lindsay Goodale was a child, she would run her hands through her grandmother’s button collection and be washed over with wonder. In those tiny and often overlooked components of clothing was a work of art and piece of history wrapped into one.
“There is something about picking up bunches of buttons,” she said. “It’s like picking up gold coins.”
While Goodale, the self-proclaimed “Brooklin button lady,” can rhapsodize about all different kinds of buttons, there is one kind that she’s particularly drawn to: mother-of-pearl.
The iridescent buttons are made from nacre, the inner layer of a mollusk shell and the material from which pearls are made. That natural beauty causes them to shine the brightest in Goodale’s eyes and she’s curated some from her personal collection of hundreds of buttons for an exhibit at the Friend Memorial Library in Brooklin.
Entitled “Button, Button,” the exhibit showcases the beauty and luminosity of mother-of-pearl buttons and belt buckles by framing them and treating them as high art instead of things to be fumbled with while getting dressed.
“Forget about buttoning up your overcoat. Beautiful buttons should be framed and hung up on the wall,” Goodale said Wednesday, quoting the late interior decorator Mario Buatta. “The workmanship in these tiny little things, it’s just amazing.”
Part of what fascinates Goodale is the long history of buttons. They go back thousands of years. The earliest known button was believed to be used more as ornament than a fastening in the Indus Valley about 5,000 years ago.
Mother-of-pearl goes way back as well. Ancient Egyptians were using mother-of-pearl in at least 4,200 B.C., with pieces found in pyramids and tombs of the ruling class, Matthew Thomas, an auction house specialist in Islamic and Indian art, told Homes & Antiques in 2020.
Over the centuries, the mollusk shell material has been largely used for decoration and reached its height in popularity in the 19th century. The first American button factory that used clam shells opened in 1895 along the Mississippi River in Iowa, according to the Wiener Museum of Decorative Arts. Clammers would collect shells from the riverbed and factory workers would cut out buttons with circular saws. Shell button would eventually fall out of favor with the rise of plastic.
Most of Goodale’s collection has unknown provinces. She’s bought them by the jarful over the years at markets and fairs. Some sport ornately carved patterns while others, like a set of English shirt buttons from Goodale’s grandmother’s collection, wouldn’t be out of place on a nice jacket today.
Ann-Margaret Thomas, the director of the small library in Brooklin, said the exhibit and accompanying button factoids have been a hit.
“Lindsay Goodale provided interesting information and books along with her beautiful Mother-of-pearl button collection,” she said. “Patrons of all ages are enjoying the show.”
For Goodale, who has button displays in just about every room in her home, the exhibit lets her show people what it’s like to take a deeper appreciation for fastenings.
“It’s wonderful to be able to share with everyone,” she said. “They are really works of art.”
“Button, Button” will be shown at the library through April.