hook. A piece of metal, or other hard material, formed or bent into a curve for catching, holding, and sustaining any thing; as, a hook for catching fish; a button-hook; a chimney-hook; a pot-hook; etc. — Webster, 1882
Though you can buy twenty-five buttonhooks for a nickel, did any one ever know of a house that had enough of them? In all the houses we were ever in, the children were compelled to take turns at one buttonhook, and half the time that could not be found. – Frankfort (Kansas) Bee, May 28, 1891.
Mention a button hook today and people might think you’re referring to the football move, not the tool used to help fasten gloves, shoes, or gaiters. (Isn’t THIS a great cartoon from October 2015?) In Laura’s day, men’s western boots were loose enough to be tugged on over the ankle, but dress boots and most other shoes for both males and females were snug around the ankle, so they were constructed with an open side held closed with buttons pulled through buttonholes or loops. While holding the handle, the curved end and long shaft of a buttonhook was fed through the buttonhole or loop and maneuvered so that the hook grabbed the button shank, which was then pulled through the hole. Although Laura Ingalls Wilder writes only of shoe buttons that were sewn in place (and therefore could fall off at the worst possible time), an instrument had been invented prior to Wilder’s birth which allowed for shoe buttons to be fastened onto the leather with metal staples instead of thread.
To Button Boots. “In buttoning shoes there is no need to rip off buttons and split out button-holes so often. Half the women don’t know how to handle a buttonhook, and that is the trouble,” said a salesman who was on his knees trying on a pair of shoes for a customer. “Most women take the buttonhook, and after catching the button in it turn the hook straight over backwards to force the button though the hole. That is all wrong. See how quick the buttons will fly off that way,” and he illustrated and sent four buttons flying into the air as a result. “Now do it this way. Put the hook through the buttonhole and take hold of the button with it. Then keep the buttonhook flat and swing it around in a half circle, always keeping the hook level where it holds the button. This saves the wear and tear on the buttonhole stitching, and the buttons will stay sewed on four times as long.” – “Shoe and Leather Facts” in Tuskegee (Alabama) News, July 5, 1894, page 4. Drawing from Boot and Shoe Recorder 78 (October 9, 1920), 68.
The hooked end of most buttonhooks was similar in shape, while the buttonhook handle could be plain or fancy and made of anything from wood or bone to sterling silver. Many sterling silver flatware manufacturers also made buttonhooks in their silver patterns. Plain buttonhooks cost a penny or two, and many stores used them for advertising, having the store name stamped on the handle. There were folding buttonhooks and some that could be worn as jewelry. Some pocket knives came with a buttonhook among its blades. There were buttonhook holders to make or buy in order to keep them handy. In The Long Winter, Laura describes the Ingallses’ buttonhook as made of steel.
buttonhook (TLW 9)
shoe buttons (BW 8; BPC 29; TLW 9; LTP 17, 20; THGY 2, 11, 19; PG)
high-buttoned / buttoned shoes (LTP 17, 20)