The button box, the relic and global obsolescence

I took my button box out of the cupboard a couple of weeks ago. Ever since then I’ve found myself wandering over to look at it, or gazing at it when I’m sitting nearby. I don’t know exactly why. Am I remembering times past? Family life? My childhood?


Or perhaps it’s simply an affectionate fascination with the old toffee tin – yes, a tin not a box – and its contents. Which are not only buttons – and not only useful.

Buttons are in the majority – there was an amazing variety but at some stage I decided to make a necklace using the best. And where’s that necklace now? Ah, well. There are still plenty to remind me of my mother’s old coats – big, bold buttons that are so 1950s, that speak of three quarter sleeves, fur cuffs and long leather gloves.

P1000223Other odds and ends bring back uncomfortable memories of girly adolescence. Contraptions of plastic, elastic and metal for holding up stockings. The bits that would eventually tear away from the suspender belt. We had spare ones in the button box for mending.

And, forget sexy, by the way. Thick, ribbed, grey school stockings were not remotely sexy. Nor were the suspender belts that held them up.

Worse were the flesh-coloured elastic belts that restrained the bulky pads we resorted to once a month. I always found it slightly creepy, that flesh-coloured elastic. A remnant of it lurks within the tin.

A younger friend asked me what a button box was for – her family has one, too, and she’d never thought to ask. Like many family things, it’s just there – rarely used, these days.  I suspect that sewing-on buttons and mending are chores that have gone with the wind – or with Primark and its ilk, more like.

But back to the box.

Inside – perhaps one of the reasons it was always so enticing – was a small, very dark blue rectangle. It was made of two pieces of tough fabric sewn together tightly, by hand, around all the edges.

This rectangle contained a holy relic. I’m sure someone told me whose and what – I used to hope it wasn’t a piece of skin – but I forgot long ago. I’m guessing it was from one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales.

But now, whenever I look at the tin, along with the affection and urge to scrabble through its contents, comes an uncomfortable feeling of guilt.

I took the relic out. And now I have no idea where it is.

In the old days, anything that had been blessed and was to be disposed of had to be burnt. Imagine what you had to do to a relic! If you had the temerity to rid yourself of it in the first place.

I didn’t want to rid myself of it, but I didn’t think it was the ideal location for something holy.

What did I know?

If I’d left well alone, it would still be there, where it rested for tens of years, untroubled except by amber glass beads and mother-of-pearl buttons.

But now I’m beginning to see the button box as something bigger even than a receptacle for a holy relic.

A symbol of a different world.

A world where my mother’s dressmaking scissors are still my favourites – sharp, heavy, a perfect ergonomic design – after who knows how many years. Where the crimson, satin-edged, Witney wool blankets that warmed the night for my parents still grace my bed today.

Where if something worked, you carried on using it. And if it broke – and if you could – you mended it.

I still use a mobile phone I bought more than ten years ago. It doesn’t do email or movies or take photos. I don’t need it to do that.

But the commercial world’s conspiring against me.

One day I’ll have to buy something that does all the things the PC and laptop I have at home – where I work, where I spend most of my time – do. I’ll end up either being inconvenienced or disadvantaged – or both – if I don’t acquire a ‘smarter’ phone. It feels like a conspiracy. Like Microsoft giving up on XP felt.

Think conspiracy’s too strong?

The BBC (with the Open University) has just begun running ‘The Men Who Made us Spend’ on TV. Watch it if you can. It’s on iPlayer. It proves what we all really know – the commercial world does conspire to make us spend, or, more specifically, to make us buy – and buy again. Built-in obsolescence, that’s the thing.

It gives a classic example. Way back when, light bulb manufacturers, led by Osram, got together and decided to reduce the length of time their bulbs would carry on working.  To make us buy more. That’s a conspiracy, in my book. (And, yes, I know the thickness of the filament makes a difference to the brightness as well as the life of the bulb – but their profits increased, I rest my case.)

Whether you could call the incessant launching of new, slightly different, annoyingly revamped phones, tablets, computers and software every five minutes a conspiracy is a moot point. I guess it can only be such if you accept that consumers willingly collude in a conspiracy that ultimately makes them spend.

Whatever it is, I’m tired of it.

And one day, when the earth is covered by waste metals and plastics, polluted by chemicals that damage our very existence, maybe someone will hold the lead conspirators to account. And not just by taking their money to fix it (if it’s not too late).

Paying their fair share of taxes would be a good start for some of them, don’t you think?







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8 Responses to The button box, the relic and global obsolescence

  1. EllaDee says:

    Funny, I just lamented to the G.O. last week of the lack of my Nanna’s button tin – long gone but never forgotten. Her maiden name was Button, the family were tailors and she was a seamstress before she married my Pa. When I was little my special treat when I was sick was be allowed to play with the button tin contents. I would spend many happy hours counting and sorting. (It only contained a myriad of buttons – no holy relics). When everything was sold up, at 9 years old it didn’t occur to me to ask for it. I have amassed my own buttons since but looking through them last week for a bright interesting button , the search was fruitless. The button tub (sadly plastic not even a nice old tin) contents reflect my modern, mainly corporate working life.
    And as for The Men Who Make us Spend, I’m onto their tricks and the world of commodities will never make its fortune from me. But it’s worth a mention to remind the busy consumers the reason for the existence of all this wonderful stuff is not for their benefit, but simply boils down to profitibilty – those “lead conspirators” the manufacturers and global conglomerates care not about us, just our funds.


    • I was really glad to read your comment this morning – I wondered if anyone else would understand the emotions evoked – the affectin I feel – for a tin of old buttons! Like you I used to play with them occasionally. And your Nanna’s name Button – what a ecnnectin – sounds like a short story in the making to me! Let me know when you’ve written it… 🙂 Yes, the pursuit of excess profit really demoralises me – so many of us just swim along with it without considering why. And all for mounting profits. The few become more and more rich – today I heard news of how CEO type pay here is on average so many times higher than the average worker that he (or rarely she) could earn in 3 days what the average-pay worker earns in a year.


  2. mud4fun says:

    I also know how you feel about the button box. While we too have a button box in the house which is actually full of sewing accessories as my wife likes to knit and sew, that is not the little box that stirs my emotions. In my workshop I have several tin boxes, old biscuit tins mostly, that were given to me by my Father many years ago. He used to keep his drill bits and smaller specialist tools in them. I remember going into his workshop as a little boy and looking at all the birghtly coloured tins wondering what they contained. I too use them to store various small tools and bits however the tins are now battle scarred with age and the once bright pictures and pattern have been worn away but the tins still make me smile when looking at them. One of the tins actually belonged to my grandfather so has been holding drill bits for nearly 100 years!

    My wife and I caved in and got smartphones last year after making do with basic non web enabled mobiles upto that point. We have found them very useful but in my case it is mainly used as a camera so that I don’t have to carry a phone and a camera around with me, not being female I don’t have a cavernous handbag to cart stuff around in so the phone works great for me.

    The Land Rover that I’m restoring was built in 1960 and after I have finished its restoration it should be good for another 50+ years, I would hope to own and drive it until I can no longer drive, I see no need for buying cars every few years. The old Land Rovers are easy and simple to fix yourself. Sadly I think the government will conspire to rid the roads of our old vehicles so we are all forced to buy a new car every three years as that in their eyes gives growth in the economy! One day they will learn that the best thing for this country is to aim for decline – in terms of population, resource consumption and habitat destruction, for our own future long term sustainability we need decline not growth.


    • So yours are bit boxes not button boxes? I like that. Tins from childhood are so evocative – I can still see a small rectangular Peek Freans one – no picture just patterns and the name – that my mum kept chocolate vermicelli and hundreds and thousands and silver balls in. And a long thin tin that was a coronation biscuit tin and had big cutlery in it. Where are they now, I wonder? I’ve recently rediscovered my Sindy doll (black hair not blonde) and her outfits in a Jacobs Biscuits for Cheese tin!
      I’d like to know how to mend a vehicle or other machines – I am toying with the idea of doing an engineering course just out of interest but I want to fiddle with things or create things and make them work, not mess with electronic circuitry. In Africa I’m always anxious about how vehicles have become impossible to fix without an expensive computer diagnostic set up – we’ve fixed vehicles with sticky tape, paper clips, stockings and even the leather cord from one of my necklaces. The day is coming when no-one will be able to fix anything.
      Re the cavernous handbag – more trouble than they are worth (and definitely not worth hundreds or thousands of pounds – madness). I have a separate camera – can see you could become addicted to the combination.
      Land Rovers – love riding in them and driving them but not when it’s too cold. First one I drove had a hole in the floor and when we drove through streams it splashed our legs. That’s the one we mended (electrics went on fire) with tape – temporarily. Trouble is, if we all drove old ones then we’d pollute the air still more, wouldn’t we? Or have you got a magic way of cleaning them up?


      • mud4fun says:

        After mentioning my Fathers tins the other day I actually stumbled across some more including some very old tobacco tins that were my grandfathers. Yes, they too are used for bits 🙂

        “if we all drove old ones then we’d pollute the air still more, wouldn’t we? Or have you got a magic way of cleaning them up?”

        Ah, the myth about old Land Rovers being poor on fuel and smoking like a chimney. That myth is brought about because the trucks are capable of still running when driven into the ground and most peoples experience of a Series Land Rover is of one that has been very poorly maintained, very poorly setup and is generally knackered. I have been rebuilding old Land Rover diesel engines for 25 years and I recently rebuilt the diesel engine on my wifes Land Rover. It now runs virtually smoke free at all times and returns 28mpg around town and upto 33mpg on a long run. That is actual and accurate recorded mpg using a GPS calibrated odometer not the ‘exagerated and often impossible to recreate government official figures you see on modern vehicles. To put it in perspective my wifes long wheel base Land Rover and its 1957 designed engine achieves better fuel economy (and thereby lower environmental emissions) and less smoke than my 2005 modern Mazda pickup truck, is significantly better than any brand new Land Rover coming off the Solihul production line and is not far off what most small petrol hatchbacks achieve around town. In fact it would achieve even better fuel economy if it wasn’t running on massive 33″ diameter mud tyres 😉

        My own Land Rover will be powered by a more modern engine removed from a Land Rover Discovery. It should achieve 45mpg on a long run and around 35mpg around town in the much lighter short wheel base Series Land Rover with appropriate gearing changes.

        So these old trucks if well maintained and carefully modified are more than capable of running as cleanly and efficiently as any modern car in like for like conditions, like for like weight. However it just takes a great deal more maintenance, money, experience and tinkering to achieve that though.


  3. mud4fun says:

    “So, are you working on one for me?”

    Our own Land Rovers take up enough of my time as it is! 🙂

    Curiously I never studied car mechanics. My Father owned an engineering company so I was brought up surrounded by mechanical engineering but of an industrial nature and scale so stripping a car engine was just a natural thing for somebody used to designing and manufacturing amongst other things, engine parts. We used to live over your way and my Father grew up in heavy engineering in Liverpool, he started life as an electrical engineer fitting out Ships before work for a company called Lyjon Triconic. He was MD for a time before the company was bought out by Asea Brown Bovari (ABB) after which he started up his own business. I remember watching him cry when they demolished the old mill that Lyjon were based in, I think it was in Ellesmere Port. He filmed it on Cine film and for some unknown reason would torture himself by showing it every few years, even as a child I could feel his pain every time he saw the wrecking ball tear through the building.


    • That’s very moving, mud4fun. I can imagine how sad it must have been for him – I feel a real sense of loss when I remember the mills of Bradford (where I moved aged 7) – not the dirt, I mean, but the smells, the noise of that machinery, the busy-ness and the expectation it would be like that forever. It all felt so solid and permanent. How could Lister’s mill stop working? It didn’t seem right – still doesn’t. And today news of an automotive parts business going into administration. Did you hear about Norton? Bikes costing over £20,000 and the order book full for 2 years? Ah well, things change and you may be right about decline…


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