Endangered Species, Pretty Buttons and the Military


Remember when you were bored at your grandparents’ house and your grandmother gave you her collection of old buttons to look at? Those were the days, weren’t they? Anything was better than snacking on stale Saltines that smelled like Fig Newtons and staring into the glass enclosed case of Kewpie dolls.

Well, these buttons drew me in at the Fiber Festival this weekend because they’re from my favorite time period–Gilded Age US. They look like ivory and that’s because they are. Vegetable ivory, that is (before someone clobbers me for killing elephants).

Did you know that Columbia and Ecuador at the turn of the 19th century were exporting to Europe and America 40,000 tons of the tagua nuts that produce vegetable ivory? The story goes that some German stevedores were playing with the nuts and noticed their ivory-like qualities.

For many years the buttons on uniforms worn by U.S. soldiers came from ivory-nuts and you know that’s what interests me. I like to imagine one of the buttons in the bag I brought home came from a soldier’s western blouse, but I’m satisfied that all of the buttons carry the essence of some 19th century person dressing up before a mirror and not thinking much about where their buttons came from.

Eco-people are re-discovering these ivory palm trees of the rainforest. Now we have to hope that this interest comes with wise use.