I'm a medical secretary and an author. I also have an internet charmstring museum where my collection is featured. I recently acquired charmstring #94 from Texas. It was in poor condition due to storage issues through over 100 years of existence. There was a ton of grime and rust on the buttons, but these things have historic value to me because any of them are also a record of a family's lifetime told by the kinds of buttons that are on the string. I set the string aside for a rainy day project, but a week of not feeling well led me to bring it out today and tackle the cleaning and restoration project.
Sitting at the kitchen table I spread the string out on an old dish towel then got out my supplies- Q-Tips, small squares of paper towel, brass wire brushes, #2 disposable pencils, a tube of Simichrome metal polish, a soft toothbrush, and small cups to hold plain water and mineral oil. I also keep sturdy wire nips on hand to cut off the shanks of broken buttons to remove them from the string without having to dismantle the whole thing, and a small pair of pliers for bending bent shanks back into shape or closing those that have come loose. And vinyl gloves. Lots of gloves because this is grimy, dirty work!
First I examine the string and nip off the broken buttons. There are buttons called kaleidoscopes that were popular back in the late 1860's to 1870's. These consist of a metal loop shank backing that had a foil or paper top on the flat metal base plate. Glued to the base was a usually clear glass top that could be a plain dome or could have a shape to it. There were five bases for this type of button on the string, but no glass tops. The foil was gone from on top of the base plates, so off the string these broken buttons had to come. Next I looked over the rest of the buttons- nothing else was broken or so badly corroded that it needed to come off.
Then the cleaning process started. I begin at one end and work my way to the other end. Brass buttons get a light cleaning with a Q-Tip to remove surface dust and grunge. Then I use the brass bristle brush to clean the face of the button. The reverse side can be black lacquer, brass, or white metal. If white metal there's generally rust that needs to be removed. The pencil is used to scrape the rust off (wear and tear on the graphite is significant, so I go through several twist pencils when cleaning!). Q-Tips and the paper towel squares remove the graphite residue. Then the whole thing is brushed again.
Glass buttons get cleaned with a Q-Tip dipped in water. Some buttons are just permanently stained due to age and dirt getting into fine cracks in the surface. I don't stress about getting them pristine. These are antique buttons and will never look like they did when brand new. My goal is to remove the most surface grime as possible.
Hard rubber buttons get cleaned the same way, however I dip a Q-Tip in the mineral oil, blot it on a piece of paper towel and then lightly rub the pil into the surface to bring out the shine in the button. Then I wipe the button with a clean bit of paper towel and move on.
Horn buttons also get cleaned in this manner- a dampened Q-Tip to remove surface grunge, then a light buffing with a dry bit of paper towel, then finally a light coat of mineral oil and another go with the dry paper towel to wipe off any excess. They look good when done!
Sometimes there's green corrosion on brass and other metal buttons. I scrape it off with the pencil graphite, wipe off the residue, brush the surface of the button with the brass bristle brush, and sometimes give it a dab of Simichrome and a polish to finish it.
Pearl and abalone buttons might have salt deposits on them. This is removed by making a paste of table salt and water and scrubbing with a soft toothbrush. If they're sew through or self shank they can soak in water. It's best not to get metal loop shanks wet, but sometimes, if the button is super filthy I just go ahead and clean it and then wipe the shanks dry, let them air dry or blow dry them on low setting to get rid of the moisture that will corrode the metal. The salt cleaning method works well- the salt is gritty but doesn't damage the shell and actually polishes it. Just don't make it too gritty! Shells come from the ocean, a little salt won't hurt them!
Buttons sometimes have fabric on them or wood backs. These need very careful cleaning! You don't want to get old fabric wet because it'll just disintegrate. Wood can also fall apart. If in doubt, just surface clean with a dry Q-Tip and move on.
Often there are military buttons or uniform buttons on a string from family members who served in various wars or organizations. These are usually brass, and some have a thin layer of gold on top of the brass- a gilt layer. Surface wipe away the grunge and grime with the dry Q-Tips, brush with the brass brush, wipe again, then polish using the Simichrome and buff to a nice shine!
Some buttonologists use a Dremel tool with brass brush wheels to clean buttons. I like the hands on approach better due to the control I have, and less chance of severing a fragile cotton string with the spinning brush wheel!
This string had an old Navy button with the left facing eagle (on May 14, 1914 an order was made that the eagle was to face right, so left facing eagles on buttons are prior to 1914. This Navy button is from around 1854 or before. Officers continued to wear these buttons up to 1902. There was also a Civil War era brass infantry button (identified by the capital letter I on the shield on the eagle's chest.)
You can find buttons dating back to Revolutionary War days on some strings! Or Colonial era pearl buttons and metal buttons including brass and copper.
This string also had a lot of hard rubber buttons, popular from just before the Civil War and after. There was some small colored charmstring glass buttons, a lot of black glass buttons and about five ruby red glass buttons.
Every charmstring is different and tells a different story.
I carefully document where I obtain each string, when and how much I paid for it. Each string is given a number and tagged with the basic info- date purchased, number of buttons on the string, price paid and location where it came from. I then photograph the string. I list the more interesting buttons ont he string and keep a binder with a picture and the description of the buttons in it.
Kelly helped me set up the firstname.lastname@example.org where the majority of my collection is shown. I need to catch it up to date- have been busy with writing projects for the last year, so not all of them are there yet. There are also pictures of other charmstrings people have given us to post on the site, some articles about charmstrings, and some old pictures of young ladies with their charmstrings.
That is my other passion besides writing- button strings! I collect as many as I can find to preserve them for future generations to marvel at, because you just don't see buttons like that anymore in today's disposable society! Buttons were cut off clothing when the clothes wore out and reused on new articles of clothing. That's where the button box came into play. From the 1860's to early 1900's young ladies raided the family button boxes to find buttons to add to their charmstrings. Other buttons came from friends and acquaintances. It was a fad, a hobby for girls, much like collecting and trading marbles and baseball cards were for boys.
Many charmstrings have fallen victim to age- falling apart. Others have fallen victim to button dealers who have dismantled them in order to sell the buttons individually. My goal is to find and preserve 100 of these nostalgic relics from the past. I have 94 of them at present so am getting closer to my goal!
Maybe one day I'll write a book about charmstrings- I certainly have enough buttons in my house to illustrate the book with!!!