THE BUTTON BOX
By Briony Coote (see Archives for other articles by Briony)
Tammy: 20 November 1982 – 23 June 1984
Artist: Mario Capaldi
Writers: Alison Christie, Ian Mennell and Linda Stephenson
Images copyright Egmont UK Ltd
In my list of “Common Categories of Serials in Girls’ Comics” (q.v.) one sub-category I listed was known as the “Collective Storyteller.” This type of storyteller owns a collection of objects and each item has a story to tell. For example:
M & J ran the occasional complete story with Jade Jenkins. (The Jade stories had no collective title.) Jade runs a Saturday bring-and-buy stall, and many of the items on sale have a story to tell. Since the story is concerned with why the item ended up at the stall, it does not make for happy reading. There is the karaoke kit that got a girl discovered as a singing star, but the gruelling schedule will not allow her any time for her friends and family. Another girl rues the day she said she loves teddy bears; now everyone swamps her with unwelcome teddies as presents. Unable to make anyone listen, she dumps the teddies at Jade’s stall, hoping they will get the point – but they just buy them back for her Christmas present.
Bunty had Dolwyn’s Dolls, whereby Meg Dolwyn owns a shop full of dolls and toys she has acquired or mended. Many of the stories behind the dolls are naturally heart-warmers and tear-jerkers, but in view of what toys are supposed to get up to in secret, a good number of them are creepy as well. In one Dolwyn story, “Major’s Revenge,” a cruel boy suffers a strange accident which leaves him permanently lame (but more considerate). He claims his rocking-horse, Major, came to life and took him on a ride of terror as a punishment. Oh, sure, the boy was hallucinating – but nobody wants to ride Major anymore.
Jade and Dolwyn have been briefly mentioned so they may provide some comparison for the Collective Storyteller of our piece – Beverley Jackson of The Button Box. The Button Box was one of Tammy’s most popular regulars in her final years, and only the abrupt cancellation of Tammy cut The Button Box short. The button box in question is a Jackson family heirloom, and every single button in the box has a tale to tell. When Beverley Jackson becomes confined to a wheelchair after a road accident, Gran gives her the box so Bev can use the stories to occupy her mind and cheer herself up whenever she is feeling down. Bev knows all the stories by heart (the Jacksons must have incredibly trained memories!), and every week she dips into the box for a story to tell. The stories have accumulated not only over the years, but the centuries as well – and they are still growing as Bev makes her own additions from her assorted holidays, friends, teachers, penpals and even celebrities. Some new additions are being made as the episode unfolds; in which case the narrator is the donor, who is telling the story before donating the button to the box.
What sort of stories can the buttons tell? Except for, perhaps, creepy stories, the spectrum is far more diverse than you might think, for several reasons:
1. The buttons come from all walks of life, social classes and cultures across the world and centuries. Therefore buttons can be used as vehicles to explore a multitude of backgrounds, cultures and eras.
2. Since people of both sexes and all ages use buttons, we get a multitude of different types of people starring in a Button story. As well as the girls who typify girls’ comics, we see soldiers, beggars, performers, lovers and even a boy or two among others. This is a huge advantage over dolls, which largely confine the Dolwyn stories to stories about children, mostly girls, although older people do feature in the more romantic Dolwyn tales.
3. The types of stories the buttons tell are more diverse (sad, funny, sobering, educational, romantic, adventurous, inspiring) because they end up in the button box for more assorted reasons than the sad reasons why the second-hand items were dumped at Jade’s stall, or most of the dolls at Dolwyn’s shop.
4. The button stories have you thinking about buttons in whole new light. Buttons are something we take for granted; we never realise the amazing uses that buttons can possess, or what fascinating collectors’ items they can be. Button exhibitions and collections outside regular collection make guest spots in the Button Box and we get to read their stories for a change.
5. The Button Box is an education as well as entertainment; Christie and Mennell must have been doing serious research into the history of buttons. We get snippets of information about black glass buttons and Dorset buttons. We also learn about some things people used to do with buttons. One activity was “touch buttons,” an old children’s game which was popular in the days when children played with everyday items. Another was the charm-string buttons, which were popular with American ladies in the 19th century – not least because only the husband-to-be could add the final button and complete the charm string.
It should be pointed that the Button Box stories were not individually subtitled to designate the story of the week. Therefore the type of button in the story shall be used as the reference for each story and be capitalised.
A number of the buttons are directly linked to Bev’s family history. The Black Glass button tells the story of how her grandfather and grandmother met; the Black Op-Art button does the same for Bev’s parents. If Bev gets married, there can be no doubt there will be yet another button to tell the tale to her descendants. The very first button story, that of the Broken Pink Button, tells us gran wants a sewing kit for her sixth birthday but her mother says she is too young for it. Gran proves otherwise by sewing the pink button on her cardigan and receives the sewing kit. During her birthday party the button gets broken, but grandmother keeps it as a “precious memory”.
Most of the buttons tell stories to entertain, educate, inspire and chastise – but nearly always they have a moral of some kind. For example, many buttons tell rags-to-riches stories, such as the Coin Button and Imitation Jewel Button – but were kept by their original owners as reminders of their origins and to keep their feet on the ground. The Coachman’s Button illustrates how horrible you can become if you let good fortune go to your head. The coachman, Billy Lowe, marries into the nobility and becomes so arrogant he turns into a monster. Then, when he is given the coachman’s button (a shopping muddle) it reminds him of his coachman origins and thereafter he wears the button inside his sleeve to keep reminding himself. Bev’s friend, Prue Holt, who has overheard the story and realised she let her own good fortune go to her head, starts doing the same.
Bev remarks that the coachman’s button taught the same lesson twice over. The truth is, virtually all her buttons teach a moral twice over; first the original owner and then the listener. Whether the lesson originates from recent times or centuries before, it still rings down. At a button exhibition Bev shows off a rarity: an Oriental Shell Button. But when she carelessly leaves it unattended, it gets stolen. Bev then relates its story – on how stealing ruined a woman’s life centuries ago. When Bev has concluded the story, she finds the button has been quietly returned.
Even when a button starts as a mere novelty item it ends up teaching the very message it exhibited as a novelty. One is the Liar Button, which is inscribed with the words, “YOU LIAR”. It is a novelty button but it was actually used to punish a girl who told lies to impress her friends. Bev pulls out the button and tells its story to a girl she knows is trying to do the same. The girl leaves, blushing deeply; she knows Bev has seen through her act and this was Bev’s way of saying it. The T Button is simply a button inscribed with a letter “T”, but it became attached to a story featuring “T’s”. Tara is nicknamed “The Tomorrow Girl” because she is an incorrigible procrastinator. Then Tara gets a shock when it seems she has put off one thing too many and become indirectly responsible for her friend’s accident. Fortunately it turns out to be a false alarm, but Tara now vows to be “Tara the Today Girl”.
Bev is only too happy to give buttons away to people who need them. She relates the story while the button is being sewn on, and the recipient then passes the story on to other people. Examples include the “Eye” Button and Guide Button, which will be discussed later on. The Walnut Button which Bev gave to a newcomer named Tara is unusual because the button came into her collection with no known story to tell – and left her collection with one: “The Cracking of Tough Nut Tara”. Experiencing grief and loss was too much for Tara, so she shuns all love and friendship to avoid a repeat. On her birthday, when the only presents she has received are from her parents, the tough nut finally cracks, realising that she has only made herself even more miserable. Bev tells Tara that loving and sometimes losing someone is all part of life, and gives her a special birthday card with the walnut button sewn on to underline what a tough nut she has been. One can just see Tara showing the walnut button to another girl who is rejecting friendship and telling its story to her....
Other buttons tell stories of inspiration and courage. The motto of the Ladybird Button is “never give up” – just the thing for Bev right now, who is having a bout of self-pity. The Dog’s Nose Button is an instruction in overcoming stage fright, which Bev uses to buck her mother up when she is nervous about giving a speech. Southpaws will cheer the story of the Daisy Button. In the 1920s, Lena Brown loves sewing, but hates her school sewing lessons because the teacher nags her for sewing left-handed. The teacher is silenced when Lena wins a prize for sewing a blouse left-handed (her right arm is broken).
There are heaps of buttons which warn against judging on appearances. The Volcano Button tells us not to underestimate people who seem shy. The Rusty Raincoat Button and Snake Button warn against intolerance and being too quick to judge people just because they are different. The Glove Button sends a message about transcending beyond disfigurement.
On a related theme, some button stories leave you thinking about something in a different light. The Warden’s Button reminds us that traffic wardens are human beings just like us; they just do an unpopular job. If you think Girl Guides are stuffy and uncool, the Guide Button will have you thinking again; its story relates how a lost dog was reunited with its owner thanks to guide training. We might moan about road tolls, but the toll system is much fairer compared with the story of the Cracked Button and its history lesson about the Rebeccaites (men who dressed in drag and smashed toll booths in protest against exorbitant tolls in the 19th century). We may not find railway stations the most inspiring of places, but the Stationmaster’s Button shows that some people love them, and with proper care and respect they can become the pride of the district.
Button stories about kindness and generosity being returned manifold are one of the most popular themes. The Italian Bell Button tells how “a little kindness goes a long way.” Gabriella, a crippled beggar girl, is bullied so cruelly by the villagers of Pia that she takes permanent refuge in the chapel. The bell-ringer, Signor Bede, is the only person who shows Gabriella any kindness, and she returns the favour by ringing the bell to warn the Bede family that the nearby volcano is erupting. She had no intention of alerting the bullying villagers as well, but of course everyone in the village heard the warning bell. Gabriella dies at the feet of the humbled villagers, who owe her their lives – but only because Signor Bede was kind to her. They rename the chapel after her and issue the bell button in her honour. The story about Austrian “Tinies” Buttons concerns a selfish girl who learns to share when she sees another less fortunate than herself. And if you think you are not talented at anything, the story of the Imitation Jewel Button teaches you that if you are kind, you have the greatest talent of all.
Kindness to animals also pays off in button stories. There are plenty of button stories about animals saving the day as thanks to the people who were kind to them. The Fox Head Button story concerns a cruel squire who is hell-bent on eradicating foxes. His niece, Emma, and her friends hide a fox cub from him, but he discovers their secret. Then, the squire gets a terrible shock when the cub lures him to the spot where Emma has been shot by his spring-guns. Naturally, he is shocked into changing his ways towards foxes.
The Acorn Button and Ivory Buttons teach environmental lessons, and you could say the Barrel Button has a message about recycling. When a friend is about to throw an old barrel on a bonfire, deeming it useless, Bev stops her with the barrel button story to demonstrate how useful a barrel can be. In the story, a water barrel helps save the day when an American pioneering family is hit by rustlers. When enough pioneers arrive to found a frontier town, it is named “Barrel” after the water-barrel. The friend converts the barrel into a garden seat. (Personally, if I had an old barrel, I would grow potatoes in it.)
Even when the button story conveys no explicit moral, one can still be implicit. Bev tells the story of the Eye Button to entertain a child, but we can hear a moral in the story: think outside the box. Nina’s dream of becoming a nurse is shattered because she does not meet the physical requirements. Nina’s parents advise her to set her mind on something else, but she cannot. Then, when Nina uses an ‘eye’ button to mend a toy, an astute neighbour spots the solution. Through her, Nina does become a nurse – at the dolls’ hospital.
One of the more amusing button stories is the Mattress Button, and its story of how greed (and not caring for your relatives) brought its own punishment. A grasping couple are waiting for their uncle to die so they can seize the fortune he has stashed somewhere. Now it seems the moment has come. What they don’t know is that the money is hidden in his bedroll – which they have just thrown onto a bonfire!
Some buttons tell stories of how they led people to new careers. The Eye Button story has already been mentioned. Another is the Jacket Button, which led Ann Jeffries, who hates her job as a maid, to a more satisfying career as a policewoman. When her employers are robbed, Ann recognises the button as a vital clue to the robber’s identity, and the police realise her potential for police work. Some buttons even lead to stardom. One is the Umbrella Button, which should be an object lesson for overprotective guardians. Bonnie’s grandmother goes to absurd lengths to protect her from rain and cold because she had pneumonia as a child. Poor Bonnie is forced to wear vests and wellington boots, even on fine days, and worst of all, carry a hideous umbrella. At least the umbrella comes in useful in the end: it helps get Bonnie discovered as a singing star. Years later, she still carries the horrible umbrella that brought her stardom – minus its button, which fell off and was given to Bev.
Unlike Dolwyn’s Dolls, buttons cannot possess supernatural elements, but there is a button which does tell a supernatural story of sorts – the Bloodstained Button. Sarah Smith yearns to be adopted, but her plain looks weigh against her. Then a fortune teller predicts “you will find happiness in a red-and-white-dress,” but Sarah fails to acquire one. She has all but given up hope when she stops to help an injured boy. His blood stains her white dress – oh so there is the red-and-white dress! The boy’s parents soon adopt Sarah.
Not all the button stories come from Bev’s collection. She collects button stories, if not the buttons themselves, during visits, holidays and public exhibitions. A golf club exhibits buttons which were specially made to promote equal rights for women golfers. A priceless dress decorated with pearl buttons is being auctioned; the pearl buttons carry another rags-to-riches story. The Button Church gets this name from three silver buttons given by a poor girl because they were all she had to give. The buttons become an inspiration for the vicar when the church is bombed during the war and has to be rebuilt. The three silver buttons are set in the wall of the church, reinforcing Christ’s message of giving all you have. At an exhibition devoted to the American Civil War, there is a placard decorated with buttons which read M.Y. J.O.H.N.N.Y.S. N.O. C.O.W.A.R.D. (never mind the grammar). The unfortunate Johnnie Dalton becomes an outcast in his hometown when a moment of panic gets him dishonourably discharged from the army for cowardice; his own father even forces him to wear buttons which spell C.O.W.A.R.D. Johnnie is finally given a chance to prove himself when he saves a child’s life – but at the cost of his own. Johnnie’s sweetheart, Mary-Lou, who had shunned him as well, takes the C.O.W.A.R.D. buttons and has more buttons cast to make the commemorative placard.
Since we have a disabled girl as the star of the show, it is not surprising that a number of the buttons tell stories about the disabled. The best example is the Star-Shaped Button. When Emma Drake goes blind she spends a whole year brooding, calling herself a “useless cabbage,” refusing to help herself and spurning her parents’ every attempt to buck her up. Then, one night Emma finds herself confronting a burglar who has stolen her mother’s jewellery. She feels the buttons on the burglar’s jacket are star-shaped, which leads the police to the missing jewels. After this, Emma finally understands that blindness does not make her “useless”. Bev gives the star button to her friend Alison, who is feeling nervous about starting blind school.
Perhaps the best button story of all is the story of the Salvation Army Button; this story even prompted a letter to Tammy. The button’s appearance is dull, but Bev considers it her brightest button because the Salvation Army brightens lives, as it did for Milly Hawkins, the daughter of a Victorian beggar-woman. The only bright spots in Milly’s life are her mother’s love and her warm blanket. She loses both when her mother dies and she ends up in a grim Victorian orphanage. When she is deemed old enough, Milly is turned out to earn her own living, but the outside world treats her with equal harshness. Milly decides to throw herself into the river and is sleeping through her wait for the tide. During this time a retired Salvation Army officer passes by and covers Milly with her own jacket. This surprise act of love and kindness changes Milly’s mind and naturally, she becomes a Salvation Army officer.
The Salvation Army Button may brighten lives, but there are buttons in Bev’s collection which have actually saved lives. The Soldier’s Button concerns an injured World War I soldier, who has collapsed and waiting for death. His buttons save his life: they reflect moonlight and get him spotted by friendly locals. The Horn Buttons (made from the hooves of cattle) save the life of a tearaway boy who has got himself into one scrape too many: he is dangling by his braces and could plunge to his death. His mother prays the horn buttons will not give way (as the other buttons have) before they can reach him. Yes, he emerges a tamed boy, as does the boy listening to the story.
We could go on recounting button stories, and judging by the amount of buttons in Bev’s box, there must have been hundreds of buttons stories left untold. However, we should now have a clear picture of how girls’ comics could make stories out of everyday items. Items we see every day, but we take them for granted and don’t think twice about them. Yet girls’ comics could make stories out of those same items to entertain us. Teach us something. Set us thinking. Ensure we never think about everyday items like buttons, toys or anything else the same way again. And create runs of Collective Storytellers that are guaranteed to be extremely popular.