Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Buttonhook of Rebecca Catherine (SNOOK) WESTABY

[Laura and Carrie] dressed carefully in their woolen winter dresses and nervously combed their hair and braided it. They tied on their Sunday hair-ribbons. With the steel buttonhook they buttoned their shoes.

"Hurry up, girls!" Ma called. "It's past eight o'clock."

At that moment, Carrie nervously jerked one of her shoe-buttons off. It fell and rolled and vanished down a crack of the floor.

"Oh, it's gone!" Carrie gasped. She was desperate. She could not go where strangers would see that gap in the row of black buttons that buttoned up her shoe.

"We must take a button off one of Mary's shoes," Laura said.

But Ma had heard the button fall, downstairs. She found it and sewed it on again, and buttoned the shoe for Carrie.

At last they were ready. "You look very nice," Ma said, smiling. [1]

When I was a girl, my favorite books were the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Living on a small farm in rural Alaska with no electricity or running water, I could relate very well to her experiences. One of the things I also enjoyed doing was perusing a reproduction of an early twentieth-century Sears, Roebucks, and Co. mail-order catalog, that had pages and pages of button-up shoes. Now outside of museums, I have never seen button-up shoes, but my husband and I were blessed a few years ago to receive a button hook that had belonged to his great-great-grandmother, Rebecca Catherine (SNOOK) WESTABY, a woman who was alive when he, his brother, and several cousins were born. Unfortunately, to my knowledge no one ever took a five-generation photo for posterity. There were some four-generation photos taken when my father-in-law was a boy, however:

The woman on the far left in this photo is Rebecca at about age 79. Her son and daughter-in-law, granddaughter, and great-grandchildren also appear here.

First, a little history about Rebecca: she was born on 21 August 1865, probably in the Nittany Valley of Centre County, Pennsylvania to Reuben Wohlford SNOOK and Mary Ann WALKER. She was the middle of about half a dozen children, and her mother died when she was five years old. Reuben remarried to Elizabeth NEARHOOD and they had nine more children.

According to my father-in-law, the family came out west to California by covered wagon, and Rebecca walked behind the wagons much of the way. I have not found evidence that they ever made it to California. Perhaps they did, or perhaps they changed their mind along the trail. At any rate, they ended up in Forsyth, Custer (now Rosebud) County, Montana at least by the late 1880s. There Rebecca met and married George Rice WESTABY, II, always called "Rice," around 1888. They had seven children: Clarice Orvilla, a little girl born in 1889 who died in infancy; my husband's great-grandfather, George Rice, III; Guy Steven; Izma Ann (the only surviving daughter); Charles Wilson, Reuben Wohlford; and Lynn Walker WESTABY. What I like about Rebecca and Rice is that they named their children with family names. Many were named for relatives, and WILSON, Wohlford (from WOHLFART[H]), and WALKER were all ancestral surnames.

By 1920, Rebecca and Rice were separated, the older children all living on their own or with their spouses, while Reuben and Lynn lived with Rebecca and Rice in their homes, respectively. I've never heard what the cause of separation was, nor have looked for a divorce record for the couple. The family story passed down was that Rice married twice more before his death in 1927. Records from Rosebud County have not been filmed by the Family History Library; they are also archived in various locations, and both time and money must be invested to obtain the records I need to flesh out this family a little more. I do know that Rebecca's father and step-mother, as well as some of her siblings, are buried in the Forsyth Cemetery. Rice died in Forsyth as well, but his body was sent back to Illinois to be buried with Westaby family members in Thompson Cemetery, Jo Daviess County.

Rebecca, meanwhile, moved on. It is said that she lived in Sheridan, Wyoming for a while, but the next time I find her is in the 1930 U.S. Federal Census in Salem, Marion County, Oregon, working in a cannery. She would have been 64 years old at this time. Why she came to Salem is somewhat vague to me; her youngest son Lynn may have lived there, but he died while swimming in either Tillamook Bay or the Columbia River in 1923 (again, oral history unverified). He had an artificial leg, which may have accounted for his inability to survive whatever caused his drowning. According to family history, his body was never recovered. At any rate, Rebecca lived alone during her senior years. Her children were scattered from New Jersey to Montana and Idaho to the Yakima Valley of Washington State. According to her obituary, she made quilts all the way up until four years before her death, caused by a stroke and fall in her bathroom.

Now about that buttonhook: there is a wonderful website for The Buttonhook Society where I found information about this handy tool. It seems that buttonhooks were used for more than buttoning shoes, as buttons on gloves, the back of shirtwaists, boots, and many other articles of clothing were popular during the 1880s - 1910s. In fact, buttonhooks were still produced in the 1920s and 1930s. How were they used? The tip of the hook would be threaded through the buttonhole from the outside of the shoe or clothing. Then the button would be grasped with the hook and carefully pulled through the buttonhole. Obviously, pulling too hard on the hook could result in the button flying off, as the example from The Long Winter, above, tells us. Rebecca's buttonhook has no manufacturer's mark, and the handle is a resinous material that appears to be an early plastic, indicating that this is a newer model. So I doubt this hook has much monetary value, but its worth as a family memento is priceless!

[1] Laura Ingalls Wilder, The Long Winter (1940; reprint, New York: Harper & Row Publishers, Inc., 1968), 76.

This post was written for the 2nd Cabinet of Curiosities Carnival hosted by Tim Abbot of Walking the Berkshires. What unusual or unique items from the past do you possess?


Janice said...


I thoroughly enjoyed your story. I recently donated some circa 1900 baby shoes to the NH Historical Society, and I had wondered how the heck the shoes were buttoned. Now I know!


Anonymous said...

Enjoyed your story so much! I just recently purchased a button hook only didn't know for sure that was what it is. I bought it with an old tatting kit and a sewing shuttle. I love old things. The lady I bought these from said they were a tatting kit, a crochet hook and a rug hook. I knew this was no crochet hook wrong tip. Not sure what the sewing shuttle was for but I will keep searching for information.

Miriam Robbins said...

Thank you for your kind comments. I wish you the best in your search for information on sewing shuttles!