Panama Canal workers could purchase “nearly every thing” in the commissaries. Will Hobby mailed Satsuma buttons imported from Japan to his cousin and aunt in Massachusetts, for Christmas, 1907.
I don’t know what patterns Will chose. Given his cousin’s and aunt’s love of flowers, I am guessing he chose floral designs.
An excellent history of Satsuma buttons, and description of the technique for glazing these ceramic buttons, mostly about 1/2 to 1 inch in diameter, is on the website of The Button Monger.
These tiny and intricate designs were hand painted, glazed and baked multiple times, first for the background, then again for each color used, and a final time when gold was added. The best ones were being manufactured when Will bought them–and only until about 1926. The techniques were handed down from generation to generation, with fewer practitioners as time went on. Satsuma buttons, at least authentic ones, have not been made since about 1960.
The Button Monger website makes me want to create my own wardrobe with fabrics like pure silk, linen, or wool designed to display an assortment of vintage buttons–Satsumas, brass, glass, Bakelite… If you have no more time for sewing than I do, her site is worth exploring for button history, antique and vintage types, and even videos about buttons.
That 1908 letter from Will tells me something about the variety of goods available to Canal workers–and makes me curious: From how many countries around the globe did those commissaries purchase imports? Were Satsuma buttons, and other imports, also available in at least larger American cities?
Never would I have expected my grandfather, in Panama, to send me on a virtual expedition to Japan to learn about buttons!