Williston Northampton and Local History . . . Your History!

Emily Speaks

Emily Graves Williston in the 1860s

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  According to Baron of Buttons, a highly entertaining, if occasionally spurious unpublished biography of Samuel Williston by Guy Richard Carpenter, class of 1905, Emily told her charges that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 Button Mill

S. Williston, Williston & Knight, and Hayden buttons of Easthampton and Williamsburg manufacture. (Click images to enlarge.)

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.

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Monster! Monster! Dread our fury!

Trial by Jury, 1939. Photo donated by Sally Showalter Hubbard ’40. (Click all photos to enlarge)

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.

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Our Earliest Photograph?

The campus, 1867 (Click to enlarge)

American photography came into its own during the Civil War, when photojournalists like Matthew Brady and Alexander Gardner documented the conflict.  Peacetime brought photography to the civilian population, as hundreds of photographers set up studios or embraced picture-taking as a hobby.

We have what may be the earliest extant photograph of the old Williston Seminary campus on Main Street, opposite Shop Row.  Today the Easthampton Savings Bank stands on the site of North Hall, the leftmost structure.  Beyond North Hall we see Middle and South Halls and the Payson Church, now the Easthampton Congregational Church.  The image is by an anonymous photographer, and measures approximately 14 x 10½ inches.  The event of being photographed was sufficiently novel to attract the attention of most of the students, who turned out to watch the process and, not coincidentally, to get into the picture.

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Williston Northampton and Local History . . . Your History!