Guest blogger Peter Valine has taught history and social science at Williston Northampton since 1998, and was appointed Dean of the Faculty in 2010. He presented the following at the opening-of-school faculty meeting on August 30, 2012.
Thinking about how to start the year, I wanted an opening that was inspirational — something to fuel and direct the positive energy of this moment. I wanted an opening that would engage us — and hold our interest. I wanted an opening with an underlying message — that gave context and meaning to our gathering together at the beginning of the year. In thinking about how to accomplish these aims (inspiration, engagement, and an underlying message), I came to the realization that I needed to tell a story.
I’ll be honest, I wanted to start the year with an Olympic story — a Williston Olympian who through purpose, passion, and integrity rose to the ranks of an Olympic medal winner — but my research revealed that the Olympic legacy of Williston athletes is actually quite modest. So I went to the Archives for inspiration, and was led to the life of Charles Fred. White, whose story serves my purposes perhaps even better than a Williston athlete who gained Olympic fame and glory.
Long after she’d stopped sewing buttons herself, Emily Graves Williston remained responsible for instructing other employees of the S. Williston Button Co. (See the earlier post, The Button Mill.) According to Baron of Buttons, a highly entertaining, if occasionally spurious unpublished biography of Samuel Williston by Guy Richard Carpenter, class of 1905, Emily told her charges that
“Buttons on a girl’s dress are just as noticeable as her nose. Buttons should be trim and neat and they should set so well that they give a burnish to her whole turnout. One fraying button or one loose button, to my eye, is like a sunburned, peeling nose — I just can’t bring myself to see anything else. Buttons of choice silk and true color make the whole dress seem richer. I like to think all our buttons make folk look and feel richer. Father Payson says that on a girl a pretty button, like a pretty nose, is not to be sneezed at.” (G. R. Carpenter, Baron of Buttons, undated typescript, The Williston Northampton Archives)
One of the things we at Williston Northampton try to instill in our history students is a critical facility concerning information sources: perhaps a healthy dose of skepticism when data or quotes of questionable provenance seem just too good to be true. This would appear to be one of those instances. But it’s still a good quote!
Your comments and questions are encouraged! Please use the space below.
The fabric-covered buttons that made Samuel and Emily Williston’s fortune began humbly enough. Most small-town and rural families, regardless of occupation, had a cash- or barter-producing sideline; Emily, a talented seamstress, made buttons to supplement her family’s meager income. The date is uncertain, but sometime early in the 1820s, she had the opportunity to dismantle a fancy button of foreign manufacture and see how it was made. The several versions of the story are the stuff of legend (and a future blog post); what she and Samuel did with the information is a matter of history.
They organized as many as 1,000 households throughout western Massachusetts – a gigantic cottage industry – in sewing buttons to Emily’s design. Essentially, fabric was cleverly sewn around a wooden center. Emily provided patterns and instruction; Samuel, materials, cartage, warehousing, marketing. The buttons produced income beyond anything the Willistons might have dreamed. The demand for S. Williston buttons was so great that by 1827, Williston created a “budget” line – fundamentally, discounted seconds – of buttons that sold under another name. He wanted the public to associate his brand only with the best-quality product.
One of the pleasures of working in the Archives is that sometimes a question will lead to a whole new line of inquiry. Or, to put it more simply, one will open a file and an idea for a blog post will jump out. Recently, research on behalf of a member of the Class of 1940 led to this photograph, from the first in a long tradition of Gilbert and Sullivan operetta performances. On May 5, 1939, the Glee Clubs of Williston Academy and Northampton School for Girls performed Trial by Jury on a makeshift stage in the basketball court. Chuck Rouse, Ruth Dunham, and Frederick “Binky” Hyde were co-directors; Howard G. Boardman provided scenery and lights.