By the end of the nineteenth century, Southern Africa was the world’s largest consumer of European beads and, since a button is no more than a flat bead with two or more holes in it instead of one, it’s quite strange that so few tribal bead workers took to buttons in a big way. In fact, only one tribe did. The Xhosa of South Africa made buttons as distinctive a part of their tribal costume as beads.
It all must have started back in the 19th century, when Europeans settlers and traders were entering the interior of the Cape of Good Hope and occupying land there, bringing trade goods including beads and buttons with them. There are old and probably apocryphal stories of little settler children living on the frontier who were abducted by Xhosa and later returned safe and unharmed, but minus all the buttons on their clothes.
During the second half of the 19th century, buttons as well as beads would have been sold in the frontier trading stores along with sugar, tobacco and other basics, but that does not mean that the Xhosa immediately took to them. The stores would have also stocked needles, for example, but many traditional beaders preferred the long tail sinews of an ox or monkey to a needle and thread because the dry sinew was stiff and you didn’t need a needle to thread the beads onto it. Shiny little mother of pearl buttons must have been a fashion that caught on in Xhosa territory and were probably initially a status symbol because they cost more to buy than beads
Buttons, the small white mother of pearl two-hole type the Xhosa preferred, were probably originally sewn onto supple tanned hide belts, skirts, headdresses, bags and capes, but by the 19th century, two more changes had made buttons even more popular. One was the introduction of the coarse white cotton trade cloth or sheeting that replaced tanned hides – so much easier to sew the buttons on to. The other was black cotton braid that could be sewn onto the sheeting to make patterns and edges, and which looked even more impressive when contrasted with the shiny mother of pearl buttons.
I would go so far as to say that a profusion of mother of pearl buttons almost invariably indicates that the origin of a piece is Xhosa or one of the culturally related tribes like the Fingo or mFengu. Rows of buttons were sewn onto clothes as borders and patterns and used to embellish the bead work itself. As you can see in several of these photographs and the Xhosa developed a technique of threading a couple of beads between the two fixing holes to make the buttons even more attractive.
While none of the other South African tribes took to buttons as enthusiastically as the Xhosa did, they do pop up from time to time, often as plain white shirt buttons rather than the old fashioned mother of pearl buttons the Xhosa love. I have an old Bagananwa (South Pedi) dance skirt that is trimmed with buttons as well as an old Ngwane rawhide maternity apron in which the two points of at the bottom of the apron have been embellished with multiple rows of four-hole type white buttons. (The Ngwane are a displaced tribe of Swazi origin who are neighbours of the Zulu).
The Zulu themselves had no liking for shirt buttons, but one or two of the heavy old conical brass coat and military buttons were often incorporated into their beadwork in the 19th century, and the tribes of the Natal Midlands still use rows of modern brass buttons on their women’s belts and skirts.
Outside South Africa, you sometimes find the odd large, white button as a centrepiece in a Maasai beaded design, but apart from that, the only other African bead makers I know
who regularly use buttons are the Fergana of Ethiopia, who live in the higher altitude coffee growing region. They commonly make a small pendant of beads on leather which is decorated with several buttons, usually multicoloured and sometimes unmatched.
Outside of Africa, the only tribes I know of who use buttons like beads are those of Pakistan and Central Asia, but they invariably use them in appliquéd designs on embroidery rather than to accompany or accentuate beadwork.
See tribal beadwork catalog at www.tribalartbrokers.net/beadProducts.asp
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