Button, Button

Button, Button
Epiphany 8

If you have ever attended a symphony orchestra concert, you have probably noticed how well the various sections of instruments work together – the woodwinds, the brass, the strings, and the percussion. The orchestras of today largely owe their instrumentation to Beethoven. His compositions, along with those of Mendelssohn, set forth which instruments would be needed and how many.

Baroque orchestras numbered around thirty musicians, with two flutes, two oboes, and two bassoons in the woodwind section; two horns and two trumpets in the brass section; a timpanist and harpsichordist in the percussion section; and a full complement of strings, usually ten violins divided into first and second parts, followed by six violas, four cellos, two basses and one theorbo, a bass lute. The classical orchestra expanded with the introduction of clarinets, the English horn, the double bassoon, the harp, and expanded brass and percussion sections and generally numbered eighty or more.

As more composers wrote for more instruments, these were also included and the orchestras of the romantic area often numbered near one hundred musicians. Modern orchestras are now between seventy-five and one hundred with extra musicians often being hired for particular concerts or compositions. Always, though, at the helm was the conductor, holding everyone’s attention and making sure they were a cohesive, together unit.

Staying together is often a challenge for both large corporations and the single individual. We’ve all had those days where it seems like fate is trying to get to us, to make us come unglued. The importance of keeping things together is that it allows us to carry on, to accomplish things, to achieve our bright ideas.

Each section of the orchestra has a leader. The first trombonist, for example, is generally considered the leader of the low brass section. The first chair trumpet is the leader of all of the brass players while the principal violinist or concertmaster is not only the leader of the string section but is second in command to the conductor. This hierarchy has existed for centuries and helps hold the orchestra together.

Mankind has utilized many things throughout the passing of time to help stay together and on track. Maps, navigational instruments, and communication tools are just a few. Personally, though, things have not really advanced that much. Individuals are still utilizing one of the things our caveman ancestors used to keeps things together – the lowly and often overlooked button.

Buttons are a treasure for an archaeologist to unearth. They often tell not only the story of the fashion of the day but the lifestyles of an area and, sometimes, what was going through the minds of those in the area. The earliest buttons were most likely of shells. Early clam shells have been found and it is assumed that fibers or even animal muscle tissue were woven together into a loop which then was wrapped around the button to hold an animal skin on the body. This allowed for hunting in colder weather and perhaps protection from the sun or inclement weather. Buttons dating back to the Bronze Age have been found and have really changed little throughout time, with only the addition of holes for easier application. However, many feel that the buttons first used was more ornamentation than utilization. To quote Ian McNeill: “The button, in fact, was originally used more as an ornament than as a fastening, the earliest known being found at Mohenjo-daro in the Indus Valley. It is made of a curved shell and about 5000 years old.”

The presence of buttons often is a sign of a civilization but sometimes it also heralds what is wrong with a period of history. The USS Monitor was the first iron-clad ship built for the Union Army during the War Between the States, a turbulent time in the history of the United States of America. Recently a pilot’s jacket recovered from the wreckage of the USS Monitor will be on display at the ship’s memorial center in Virginia. The USS Monitor was the first ship to have a revolving gun turret and was built to respond to the Confederate Army’s seizing of another large ship, the Merrimack, which was renamed the USS Virginia. Commissioned in early 1862, the Monitor sunk during a heavy storm in December of 1862.

The recovered pilot’s coat was discovered ten years ago. Monitor Center director David Krop explains the significance of this display and the finding of the coat and the accompanying cache of buttons found with it. “We’ve found all kinds of buttons inside the turret—some made of wood, some of glass, some of bone, some of rubber, some even mother-of-pearl. Clearly the sailors were just tearing their clothes off before jumping into the water—and doing it so fiercely that their buttons were popping off. This coat was left behind by one of those sailors—and it gives you a very real, very personal connection to the story of those men and this ship during its chaotic end.”

Buttons are a living history lesson and when unearthed from the past, often provide a link to the men and women who wore them. We will never know whose bright idea it was to utilize them, whether as decoration or as a clasp, but the epiphanies we are able to perceive when we locate them from the past are never-ending. Whether used to advertise a product or candidate or simply to keep a shirt from coming open, buttons help organize us, help keep us together. Their place in culture has been used to help designate and commemorate and yet, they are often overlooked and underappreciated.

Today we will all go through our lives using various things to help organize those lives and to help us keep things together. Not every button looks the same; in fact, their uniqueness often determines their value. From the first Button Makers Guild in 1250 to the present, buttons have served several purposes. The button has become the conductor of our garments, much like that orchestra conductor keeps everyone on the same beat, with the button not only keeping our clothes on our bodies but also providing decoration and cultural significance.

I hope that, as we walk through our lives, we will all see the various purposes our experiences offer us – both the good and the bad. I hope we will see the uniqueness in each other and rather than fear it, embrace it. Perhaps like the lowly button, we can use those distinctive qualities to hold life together instead of letting it be an excuse to cause discord.


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