The Notions Department

Jars filled with buttons
Image by Shannon Smith from Pixabay

I enjoyed reading Jean Tubridy’s post this morning entitled The Sewing Tin. Both my grandmothers as well as my mother had a sewing box of some sort. Some were in old tins and others were in boxes. I, too, remember well the contents of those boxes. They held a little of everything.

I remember well the first time I went to a small department store with my grandmother and our visit to the ‘Notions’ department. There I saw a vast array of all the items necessary to construct a garment, or drapes, or even cushions and pillow covers. There were graduated displays of thread in every color imaginable (although there were not as many bright colors as exist today). J&P Coats and Clarks were the most familiar brand names. The spools were made of a soft wood with a thin cut at the top to anchor the loose end of the thread.

There were zippers galore, delicate pairs of hook and eye closures, needles, pins and pin cushions shaped like tomatoes, lace, elastic, and shiny new scissors. There were also wooden cases with drawers used to hold dress patterns in every size. My grandmother always knew exactly what she needed so there was not much time for browsing.

The section of notions that always made me STOP in my tracks, were the buttons. Every woman in my family had a jar full of mis-matched buttons. You never knew when a button would be lost and the search through the button jar would begin.I loved playing with the old buttons, but I was so thrilled to see little cardboard cards full of new stylish buttons that matched!

I learned to sew on a button very early and have sewed on many buttons in my time. But sitting here today and thinking back it has probably been 10 years since I sewed a button on a garment. My generation might be the first in my family with no button jar.

When I started learning to make beaded jewelry, buttons were always part of the wire wrapped rings I made. I guess I never lost my fascination for them.

I don’t know of any stores that have a ‘Notions’ department now. Some of the mega discount stores like Walmart have small sewing departments, but you generally must go to a fabric specialty store to buy such things now.

Another disappearing part of our culture.


27 thoughts on “The Notions Department”

  1. I learned to sew on a button at a young age (around 10 years old), as my mum worked. If I lost a button on a school shirt, I usually sewed a replacement on myself. My mum had a treasured cantilever sewing box, crafted in wood. I think it had been handed down to her. She still had that box when she died, though she could no longer see to thread a needle.
    I gave it to one of my step-daughters. It looks like this one, but has coloured inlays in the lids.–12/
    Best wishes, Pete.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You were unusual, at least by U.S. standards. I know my brother never learned to sew a button. My dad did in the service, though.

      That box is lovely. So sweet of you to gift it to your step-daughter.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. For the last 5-10 years of my career, I found dress shirts showing wear at the edge of the cuffs, on the pocket and on the collar long before a button fell off. I think we transformed to disposable clothing at some point. My grandmother would be sad.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think you are right, Dan. My husband loved Jos A. Banks dress shirt when he was working. We had them laundered for that crisp look and found that where the buttons were sewn, it often pulled holes. He sure hated it when one of those shirts bit the dust.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I remember spending hours sifting through my gran’s button box – it was much more interesting than my mum’s. And mine is even less interesting, consisting mainly of the spare buttons which come with some garments.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have buttons in a box, but not near the wide variety or color of my family’s button jars. There were so many different shades of white and cream but there was sure to be a match if you looked long enough.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Here’s a poem I wrote about gran’s button tin:

        the battered octagonal tin

        amongst the buttons
        shimmering mother-of-pearl
        once fastened gran’s wedding gown

        tiny painted forget-me-nots
        from a dress mother wore
        before she met my dad

        dull brass buttons from
        an unknown uncle’s greatcoat

        a tiny pearl, like a baby’s first tooth,
        gleaming almost in my grasp
        sinks to the bottom

        deep digging

        silver threepennies for Christmas puddings
        old farthings, two
        real gold collar studs,
        round rubber buttons
        from an ill-named liberty bodice

        tangles of coloured cottons
        from wooden reels that grandpa
        turned into bobbin knitters

        or tractors
        which wobbled jerkily
        on rubber bands and matchsticks
        across the kitchen floor.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. Mary, your poem is lovely. I could picture everything you described so beautifully. What a lovely tribute to the memories of lives well lived.

          Liked by 1 person

  4. The whole idea of a department store seems to have faded into history. I know there are still a few of them, but even they seem to have gotten away from the “everything from A to Z” business, where you could get everything from wedding gowns to TV’s to vacuum cleaners to draperies *and* store your fur coat, all under one roof.

    Remember those big tins that Danish butter cookies used to come in? My mother-in-law used one for her buttons…

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I tend to agree with you, John. The department store of old seems to only exist in memory now. I had forgotten about fur storage. Most of the department stores now are clothing , shoes and some housewares. Of course, sewing is a bit of a dying art as well.

      I do remember the Danish cookies – the tins were huge. Now that is a lot of buttons! I even remember my grandmother cutting buttons off of old torn shirts just in case they were ever needed for a match.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Oh Maggie, I LOVED this post. I can totally identify with you being fascinated with your grandmothers buttons and loving the notions departments in stores we frequented as children. Because I ” collect” so many things, I can share that I have a very interesting collection of buttons I found at various estate sales I helped to run back east. I love them, but I think we both know where they will wind up…..unless we get our little granddaughter on our sides one day!! Lol…..fat chance!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, Nancy, I imagine the buttons are quite lovely. Have you considered displaying them in a shadow box? I think they would make.a beautiful piece of art.


      1. No, but what a great idea! I can always count on you for artistic suggestions!! I will find them and send you pictures.

        Liked by 2 people

  6. We still have my mother’s sewing box – a clear box with lots of spools of thread in various colors, and odds & ends at the bottom. We even have a “tomato” pincushion, which I will be now holding on to…
    I tried my hand at sewing in Home Economics (another blast from the past). Suffice to say that domestic art eluded me. I was good at cooking, though. 😉

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Victoria, it is so nice you still have your mother’s sewing box. Such lovely memories of a time which has almost completely disappeared.

      I was better at sewing in Home Economics than cooking. I still remember learning to make a French seam to close the bottom of a tote bag. I do not know if any schools offer Home Economics any longer.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I don’t think so, which is a shame. There’s so much more to eating than throwing a frozen dinner in the microwave and zapping it for three minutes.

        Having said that…with caregiving, sometimes our little convection oven is a life saver at the end of the day.

        Liked by 2 people

    2. Victoria, had to laugh because my home ec teacher passed me with a D for sewing, while both my grandmothers were INCREDIBLE seamstresses! You should have seen the blouse I made!! Lol….cooking was my favorite!! Aced that!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I don’t know where I went with my mother that there was a notions department, but I do remember it. It may sound odd, but might it have been Penney’s? I may ask her. I do have a button jar. And honestly, I have some mending to do as well. The day is young 😉

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I am happy to know the button jar lives! Penny’s, like so many other stores have changed through the years. I remember going to Montgomery Ward’s and how diverse their store was (I do not think they had a notions dept though).

      Liked by 1 person

      1. There was a Montgomery Ward in Fountain Square Indy when I was a teenager, and I bought pet fish there. I remember enjoying it because it was so diverse! Also, it was old and kitschy and I dug that. However, in college I worked at Montgomery Ward in the mall, in the suburbs of Indy for about a month before looking for something else. I worked in women’s clothing, and it was just like any other department store ever. I remember my department manager reading my two-weeks’ and telling me that I should be careful about burning bridges. I never regretted leaving and they closed a few years later. I hope SHE found another job.

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        1. I remember the later “Monkey Wards” before they closed. Their stock had declined and not much to shop for. Working retail is never easy, but it is so much better when you have a good crew to work with. I am glad you walked away.

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