Tom Popper: The things you’ll find in ‘Granny’s »glory hole«

[ Time Out Budapest magazin, November 2011 ]

The queen of buttons lives right here in Budapest. A qualified antiques appraiser, Sylvia Llewelyn has been collecting and selling buttons since 1979, when she had a shop on the King’s Road in Chelsea. Now she lives in Budapest, occasionally selling at markets in London and also out of

After years in the trade, Llewelyn is sharing her knowledge of buttons in a cute, pocket-sized picture book that’s been published here in Hungary. You can read about the history of buttons and the types of materials used to make them: metal, silver, vegetable matter, animal matter, plastic and so on. You can learn that the Chinese were using buttons as early as 1,200 BC and that they preferred jade buttons that were yellow as that ‘was the colour of the Emperors’.

But the real joy of this 136-page book are the photos by István Faragó, which are nicely laid out: cheery, colourful pictures of antique buttons fill entire pages. While there are also old illustrations of button makers and pictures of button cards, most of the photos – roughly 900 of them – are of individual buttons, which are shown at actual size and enhanced with a digital shadow to add a 3D look. Flipping through these pages is like sifting through a huge button box, in convenient book form.

At 12-by-12.5cm (roughly 5-by-4.5 inches) ‘Old Buttons’ is much smaller than a coffee-table book, but it works on the same principle: attractive images accompanied by text that needn’t be read from beginning to end because it’s easy to drop in anywhere. Turn to a page and read:

‘The 19th century was a golden age for buttons with its advanced mass production techniques, the growing wealth of the nations, and trading with the Colonies and the new fashion trends. Ladies were still being dressed by servants at this time, and that is the reason why women’s buttons, even today, are on the reverse side to that of men’s clothes. It was assumed that men could dress themselves!’

Despite her expertise, Llewelyn is only credited as author on the back cover and in the publisher’s note at the beginning. The latter, entitled ‘The Button Box’, is worth reading for the first few words: ‘On reflection our Anno publications to date could be likened to the collection of the belongings one might find in Granny’s “glory hole” or stowed away…’ The quote marks around ‘glory hole’ were provided by the publisher.

The main text of the book is free of such whimsical boo boos. It uses clear, sometimes overly simplistic language to give random facts, like this tidbit: ‘Marcasite is a natural metallic stone that is also called iron pyrites and commonly known as Fools gold. The French used it in the 18th century, and the cut steel buttons were produced originally to imitate it, but it is rare to find it in a button’.

This may be useful information for collectors, but for the rest of us, it’s diverting reading, nice to glance at while enjoying the pictures – which are as cute as the book’s topic.