I have a button in my personal collection that I found for $.25 at a dive-y thrift store in late summer 2017. It was hidden on a shelf of out-of-date Chilton’s car manuals, scratched 45’s of one-hit-wonders from the 1950s, and maps of tourist locations on the East Coast. It was dirty but beneath the layer of grime, pink text shouted out: “Knitters of the World… It’s Time to Get Organized! The Boye Needle Company can help.” It’s a standard button, about an inch and a quarter in diameter, though instead of the pin and hook closure that attaches contemporary pins to backpacks and jean jackets, this button has a metal flap that its wearer can press into the collar of a top. Boye still exists today; they released the button between the late 1960s and early 1970s.
I’m attracted to all-things-knitting, especially if the objects are pre-1950. That being said, I perk up at the sight of knitting patterns, needles, and stitch markers that came from before the craft-wave of the 21stcentury, in general. When I saw this piece, I knew that it was special, and I was instantly curious about the word “organized”; was it a reference to labor? Or something simpler, like an advertisement for an organizing case for knitting needles? I had no idea, and I sought to figure it out.
A closer inspection of the button at home revealed features that were invisible under the florescent lights that illuminated the thrift store. The metal flap of the button has a stamp that matches the font color on the front. It reads: Local number 745 Chicago, AFL-CIO LPIU. In plain speak, workers organized with the Lithographers and Photoengravers International Union produced the button. That union was the result of the merger of the Amalgamated Lithographers of America and the International Photo-Engravers Union in 1964. Later, in 1972, the LPIU combined with the International Brotherhood of Bookbinders to form the Graphic Arts International Union.
When I discovered this, I must admit that my hope for some imagined knitting labor union was dashed. I secretly wished there were some radical knitters in the mid-century, though I concede that the idea was far-fetched from the start. Back on planet earth, this button probably advertised one of Boye’s many knitting needle cases. Nevertheless, from this information, I learned that Boye produced my button between 1964 and 1972. By my instinct (and the font of the button), I suspected that the actual date was closer to the late 1960s, maybe 1969 or even 1970.
It was the end of fall 2017, and I put the idea for radical knitters and the button away as I moved away from my knitting research. I half-heartedly stayed with the project; it reached something of a natural end due to lack of material culture sources and time. However, before I decided to put my project on hold, I found something of note in a collection of documents that I requested from the Harvard Baker Library.
Anne L. Macdonald, the late author of No Idle Hands: A Social History of Knitting, placed a call for knitters’ life stories in various magazines and newspapers across the country as she wrote her book. In a response to her survey, one Mrs. Margaret Parrish Dexter, an elderly woman from Connecticut, described the very button that I own, and sketched its shape. Her note was brief but stated that she received the button fourteen years prior, in a local yarn store. The documents that I requested were from 1986, which meant that Mrs. Dexter picked up the button in 1972, the very same year that the LPIU became the GAIU. Unfortunately, I have no idea if Macdonald requested the photo that Mrs. Dexter offered, nor do I know if her button matched mine entirely. The shape of her sketch suggests that they were nearly identical, but I am uncertain if the colors were the same. Some historical questions go unanswered, and that’s okay.
I didn’t anticipate that the button would be anything more than a fun piece on the edge of my bookshelf, inspiration to stay organized (in all definitions of the word). In truth, I don’t think I will do much else with my knitting research, maybe submit to a knitting journal or magazine, but I do know this little button breathed some excitement into it again, an unexpected, but welcome, pleasure.