Tammy: 20 November 1982 – 16 June 1984
Artist: Mario Capaldi
Main Writer: Alison Christie
Sub-writers: Ian Mennell and Linda Stephenson
The button box is a Jackson family heirloom, and every single button in the box has a story behind it. When Beverley Jackson becomes confined to a wheelchair after a road accident, Gran gives her the box so Bev can use the stories to occupy her mind and cheer herself up whenever she is feeling down. Bev knows all the stories by heart (she must have a photographic memory or something) and every week she dips into the box for a story to tell. The stories have accumulated not only over the years, but the centuries as well – and they are still growing as Bev makes her own additions from her assorted holidays, friends, teachers, penpals, and even celebrities. Some new additions are being made even as an episode unfolds. In these cases the narrator is the donor, who is telling Bev the story before donating the button to the box.
The buttons come from all walks of life, social classes and cultures across the world and centuries. Therefore the buttons can be used as vehicles to explore a multitude stories that are set in a whole variety of backgrounds, cultures and eras. Since people of both sexes and all ages use buttons, readers get a multitude of different types of people starring in a Button story, including soldiers, beggars, teachers, celebrities, performers, lovers and even a boy or two. The buttons are also educational. For example, readers get snippets of information about the history of buttons and the things people used to do with them. Among them are the game of “touch buttons”, from the bygone days when kids played with everyday items, and charm-string buttons, which were popular with American ladies in the 19th century. The person to add the last button to the string and finish it was the husband-to-be.
A number of the buttons are directly linked to Bev’s family history. The Black Glass button tells the story of how her grandfather and grandmother met; the Black Op-Art button does the same for Bev’s parents. If Bev gets married, no doubt there will be yet another button to tell that tale. The very first button story, that of the Broken Pink Button, tells readers that Bev’s gran wanted a sewing kit for her sixth birthday but her mother said she is too young for it. Gran proved otherwise by sewing the pink button on her cardigan. Sure enough, she got the sewing kit for her birthday. During her birthday party the button got broken, but grandmother keeps it as a “precious memory”.
The buttons tell stories to entertain, educate, inspire or chastise, but nearly always they have a moral of some kind. For example, many buttons tell rags-to-riches stories, such as the Coin Button and Imitation Jewel Button. In these cases their owners kept the buttons to remind them of their origins and keep their feet on the ground. Pity coachman Billy Lowe of the Coachman’s Button tale didn’t do that (at first). Lowe marries into the nobility despite his lower class origins. But he becomes so arrogant he turns into a monster. Then, when he is given a coachman’s button (a shopping muddle) it reminds him of his coachman origins and thereafter he wears the button inside his sleeve to keep reminding himself. Bev’s friend, Prue Holt, who has overheard the story and realised she let her own good fortune go to her head, starts doing the same.
Even when a button starts as a mere novelty item it ends up teaching the very message it exhibited as a novelty. One is the Liar Button, which is inscribed with the words, “YOU LIAR”. It is a novelty button but it was actually used to punish a girl who told lies to impress her friends. The T Button is simply a button inscribed with a letter “T”, but it became attached to a story featuring “T’s”. Tara is nicknamed “The Tomorrow Girl” because she is an habitual procrastinator. Then Tara gets a shock when she thinks she has put off one thing too many and become indirectly responsible an accident. Fortunately it turns out to be a false alarm, but Tara resolves to become “Tara the Today Girl”.
Bev is only too happy to give buttons away to people who need them. The Walnut Button, which Bev gave to a newcomer named Tara, is unusual because the button came into her collection with no known story to tell, but it left her collection with one: “The Cracking of Tough Nut Tara”. Tara is so affected by grief that she freezes up and refuses all offers of friendship to avoid further hurt. On her birthday, when the only presents she has received are from her parents, the tough nut finally cracks, realising that she has only made herself even more miserable. Bev takes pity on Tara and gives her a special birthday card with the walnut button sewn on to make a point about what a tough nut she has been. One can just see Tara showing the walnut button to another girl who is rejecting friendship and telling its story to her.
Other buttons tell stories of inspiration, courage, and even equal rights. The motto of the Ladybird Button is “never give up”. The Dog’s Nose Button is an instruction in overcoming stage fright, which Bev uses to buck her mother up when she is nervous about giving a speech. Southpaws will cheer the story of the Daisy Button. In the 1920s, Lena Brown loves sewing but hates her school sewing lessons because the teacher keeps forcing her to sew right-handed although doing so makes her sewing suffer. The teacher is silenced when Lena wins a prize for sewing a blouse left-handed after breaking her right arm.
There are heaps of buttons that warn against judging on appearances. The Volcano Button tells us not to underestimate people who seem shy. The Rusty Raincoat Button and Snake Button warn against intolerance and not being hasty to judge people just because they seem different.
On a related theme, some button stories leave you thinking about something in a different light. The Warden’s Button reminds us that traffic wardens are human beings just like us; they just do an unpopular job. If you think Girl Guides are stuffy and uncool, the Guide Button will have you thinking again; its story relates how a lost dog was reunited with its owner thanks to guide training.
Button stories about kindness and generosity being returned manifold are one of the most popular themes in the strip. For example, the story about Austrian “Tinies” Buttons is about a selfish girl who learns to share her toys when she sees what a poor girl has for a toy – a lump of wood done up as a doll. And if you think you are not talented at anything, the story of the Imitation Jewel Button teaches you that if you are kind, you have the greatest talent of all.
The Acorn Button and Ivory Buttons teach environmental messages, and you could say the Barrel Button has a message about recycling. When a friend is about to throw an old barrel on a bonfire, deeming it useless, Bev stops her with the barrel button story to demonstrate how useful a barrel can be. In the story, a water barrel helps save the day when an American pioneering family is hit by rustlers. The barrel gives its name to the frontier town that springs up soon afterwards. Personally though, I think knowing a few tricks in the event of a home invasion or what to do if you get bound and gagged is more to the point with this one.
Even when the button story conveys no explicit moral, one can still be implicit. For example, Bev tells the story of the Eye Button to entertain a child, but we can hear a moral in the story: think outside the box. Nina’s dream of becoming a nurse is shattered because she does not meet the physical requirements. Nina’s parents advise her to set her mind on something else, but she cannot. Then, when Nina uses an ‘eye’ button to mend a toy, an astute neighbour spots the solution. Through her, Nina does become a nurse – at the dolls’ hospital. The Eye Button is one of the button stories on how some of the buttons got people launched on new jobs and careers.
One of the more amusing button stories is the Mattress Button, and its story of how greed (and not caring for your relatives) brought its own punishment. A grasping couple are waiting for their uncle to die so they can seize the fortune he has stashed somewhere. What they don’t know is that the money is hidden in his bedroll – which they have just thrown into a bonfire!
Not all the button stories come from Bev’s collection. She collects button stories during visits, holidays and public exhibitions. A golf club exhibits buttons that were specially made to promote equal rights for women golfers. A priceless dress decorated with pearl buttons is being auctioned and the pearl buttons carry another rags-to-riches story. The Button Church gets its name from three silver buttons given by a poor girl because they were all she had to give. The buttons become an inspiration for the vicar when the church is bombed during the war and has to be rebuilt. The three silver buttons are set in the wall of the church, reinforcing Christ’s message of giving all you have.
Since we have a disabled girl as the star of the show, it is not surprising that a number of the buttons tell stories about the disabled. One example is the Star-Shaped Button. When Emma Drake goes blind she spends a whole year brooding, calling herself a “useless cabbage,” refusing to help herself and spurning her parents’ every attempt to buck her up. Finally, Emma changes her mind when her enhanced sense of feel leads the police to the robber who burgled the house. Bev gives the star button to her friend Alison to give her confidence in starting blind school.
Perhaps the best button story of all is the Salvation Army Button, which is reproduced above. This story even prompted a letter to Tammy. The button’s appearance is dull, but Bev considers it her brightest button because the Salvation Army brightens lives, as it did for Milly Hawkins, the daughter of a Victorian beggar-woman. After being orphaned, raised in a cruel orphanage, turned out to earn her own living and finally driven to the brink of suicide, everything turns around when a retired Salvation Army officer gives Milly her jacket. Naturally, Milly joins the Salvation Army.
The Salvation Army Button may have brightened lives, but there are buttons in Bev’s collection that have actually saved lives. For example, the Soldier’s Button is about a World War I soldier who is dying from his injuries. His buttons save his life: they reflect moonlight and get him spotted by friendly locals. The Horn Buttons (made from the hooves of cattle) save the life of a tearaway boy who has got himself into one scrape too many; he is dangling by his braces and could plunge to his death unless those horn buttons live up to their promise.
The only thing missing from the button collection is the supernatural. However, Alison Christie said in an interview that she intended the strip to end with Bev regaining the use of her legs while reaching for an ordinary button with no tale behind it. Following this, it became “her favourite button of all”. It would also imply there was something supernatural about the buttons all along. If this ending had been used, it would most likely have been in Tammy’s final issue before her merge into Girl. However, it never happened due to Tammy’s sudden disappearance after 23 June 1984 from a strike. The last published Button Box story appeared 16 June 1984 and was a regular story. No Button Box story appears in the last published issue of Tammy. It is a shame, as readers would have loved to have seen this final episode and the happy ending of The Button Box.
9 thoughts on “The Button Box (1982-84)”
This was a good storyteller serial, and having a young girl tell the story makes it stand out from others. The use of buttons to tell a history is fun too, it reminds me of a Mandy picture story library “Pandora’s Box” where a young girl inherits a box of buttons and then can travel back in time with it (though she is mostly ghost like and can only witness the events)
I do remember seeing “Pandora’s Box” around.