Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The Button Lady

Writing about Fiberarts and the memories of clothing reminded me of one of my all-time favorite writing opportunities. In 1995 I was in grad school and working as an intern at The Goldfinch, a wonderful and sadly now defunct history magazine for children published by the Iowa State Historical Society. Although the publication had a tiny budget it managed to win national awards and I loved doing the research for the articles. While working on a piece about collections, I was introduced to this photo of Mamie Thimmes, a woman from Mechanicsville, Iowa, who had quite the penchant for buttons.

After the photo ran in The Goldfinch, I pitched a piece to Fiberarts and it ran in the Jan. 1996. This was in the early days of Martha Stewart, when she was introducing the glue gun to the masses (anyone remember those Martha Stewart parody magazines, Is Martha Stewart Living? One photo spread featured her in S&M-style attire, glue gun at the ready in a holster around her waist). I mention this because now Martha's all about sewing, but in those days she was into adhesives...hence the lead to my piece, which I'll reproduce below.

But first my favorite part of this story. Mamie Thimmes' daughter was still living and had Mamie's button outfit. It turns out Mamie had sewn buttons to much more than the items in the photo. Here's a picture of Deloris with an American flag Mamie created.

Visiting Deloris in the home she'd shared with Mamie was such a treat, although a bit surreal. Deloris was a very quiet woman, unused to talking with strangers. Getting her to say much at all about her mom was nearly impossible—I got a lot of my information from archived newspaper clippings.

But Deloris was quite willing to show me the button creations, and they were the most amazing things: the buttons were of every shape, size, and material imaginable. They depicted the Eiffel Tower, a floral wreath worn around the necks of winning horses at the Kentucky Derby, and pieces of fruit. The outfit weighed a ton and the corduroy onto which it was stitched was starting to tear from the weight. I tried contacting Deloris after our meeting to encourage her to donate it to the State Historical Society, but I'm afraid it was probably sold at auction and dismantled by button collectors...

Here's the copy I wrote that accompanied Mamie's photo:

If that high priestess of homeyness, Martha Stewart, provided instructions for this outfit, a glue gun would be first on the list of required materials. But in 1955 when Mamie Thimmes whipped up a simple wide-waled gold corduroy shift and began meticulously arranging her button collection on it, she attached them in the tried and true way—by hand, with a needle and off-white thread.

"It was just something she enjoyed doing," says Thimmes' daughter, Deloris, who traveled the United States with her mother in search of of old and unusual buttons. After the shift, Thimmes went on to create a button-covered hat, a shawl, shoes, an antique parasol, a fan, earrings, a bracelet, and a stuffed dog-on-wheels. She estimated that over 40,000 buttons adorn the ensemble. Thimmes modeled her weighty creation for select gatherings in her hometown of Mechanicsville, Iowa.

This fascination with buttons began when Thimmes cut one from her daughter's baby shoe in 1908 and continued until she died in 1981 at the age of 92. In between she worked in a meat-packing plant and taught Sunday school for over 50 years. But there was always time for buttons. Methodically, on winter evenings, she stitched them to pillow shams, wall hangings, a wastebasket, and an American flag. Forty years later, they are still holding strong.


hurricanemag said...

I remember those pictures! Love them. I also liked reading what you wrote about her back in the '90s. "But there was always time for buttons." Love you! - Maggie

Mary Lou Weidman said...

One can never have enough buttons can they? That woman is a woman after my own heart.
Love your blog, keep up the good work.
Mary Lou Weidman

AnneR said...

I want to see the bebuttoned dog!