Each fall Archivist Rick Teller ’70 speaks to the assembled School on some aspect of Williston Northampton history. The event, popularly known as “the button speech,” only occasionally concerns buttons at all. But this year it did. These remarks were delivered on Friday, September 20, 2013.
Good morning. At solemn occasions … like hockey games … we sing about someone named “Sammy.” Our hearts yearn for him … for his campus and geriatric elm. But, you might well ask, about whom do we sing? Just who was “Sammy?”
Samuel Williston was born across the street, in a house located where the Homestead now stands. The house, where Mr. Swanson lives and which we now call “The Birthplace,” was moved across Park Street in 1843. It is much grander now than it was when Sam arrived.
That was in 1795. George Washington was President. Easthampton was a small farm village. Samuel’s father, Payson Williston, was the minister in Easthampton’s only church. Payson was a stern, old-fashioned New England preacher, with strong Calvinist leanings. We will get to Calvinism in a minute. The Reverend Mr. Williston’s salary was tiny, and he had a house full of children. He added to his income by planting a few acres of mediocre farmland. That farm is now the heart of our magnificent campus.
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 According to Baron of Buttons, a highly entertaining, if occasionally spurious unpublished biography of Samuel Williston by Guy Richard Carpenter, class of 1905, Emily told her charges that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.