ABOUT A BUTTON
I have a story to tell. And it’s about a button.
My job as an insurance adjuster for art, antiques and collectibles sometimes brings me all over the world. I get on a plane, investigate the loss, make a report and fly back home. Most of the time, though, I work from my desk at the office.
One day, an unusual claim came into my office regarding a lost or stolen button. I had never had a claim for a button before, so I immediately opened the file to learn more about it.
The Museum of Zippers, Snaps and Buttons is located in a suburban mall near Helena, Montana. The museum doesn’t get many visitors these days, which is probably why they let their guard down and became lax in their security procedures.
Last week they discovered that a very rare and priceless button was missing from its display case. It was one of three buttons that had been part of Mark Twain’s overcoat - the middle button, which experts consider to be more valuable than any other button in any collection in the world. Twain wore this overcoat through three long and cold winters in Hartford, Connecticut, as he wrote some of his most famous stories.
In 1875 while strolling through town, a stray arrow came flying out of the sky heading straight for Twain’s back. Fortunately for him, at the last moment he turned around and the arrow struck the middle button of his overcoat and safely bounced away. His life had been saved by the button, which was now cracked but still in one piece, since it was made of sturdy whale bone which was popular in the day. Twain wanted to honor the button in his next book which was initially titled “The Adventures of Huckleberry Button”. His publisher balked at that and insisted that he change the boy’s last name.
The Twain Button, as it had come to be known, resided in the Mark Twain Boyhood Home until 1968, when it was donated to The Museum of Zippers, Snaps and Buttons. There it became the focal point of the museum, outshining all the other notions and sewing articles on display. All those who visited the museum specifically came to see the button, bypassing the museum’s other artifacts. So naturally, the museum directors assigned a very high value to this button, and filed an insurance claim for $1.75 million. An astounding amount of money for a button.
So at the first chance I got, I hopped a plane and flew to Helena to see The Museum of Zippers, Snaps and Buttons.
Upon entering the museum, I was greeted by the museum director and her nine year old daughter, Maggie. Mrs. Billings was cordial to me as I introduced myself as the insurance adjuster for the issue of the missing button. I told her I wanted to get more information so that we could close the case.
“What else is there to know?” asked Mrs. Billings. “The button is gone, that’s all. When will the claim be paid?”
“It’s not that simple, I’m afraid,” I said. “A claim for this amount of money needs to be examined closely. I need to find evidence that the button has been stolen or lost by some nefarious means. I’m sure you understand.”
“Understand?… yes. Do I like it?.. not a bit,” Mrs. Billings retorted. She was becoming annoyed by me, and also by her daughter fidgeting by her side. So with a fake smile that belied her displeasure she said, “Maggie, go play with your dolls in the other room. Okay sweetie?” The daughter may have taken a moment too long, for Mrs. Billings then sternly said, “Now Maggie! Skidoodle!”
Maggie ran off as Mrs. Billings walked me to the display case that had once housed the Twain Button. “It was there, and now it’s not,” she curtly explained as she pointed to the case. “That’s proof enough that it isn’t here.”
I told her that I would be making a report as soon as I gathered all the facts, but I knew I was wasting my time trying to explain the workings of an insurance investigation. Either she just didn’t understand what I was saying, or she was pretending to not understand. I thought I should be quiet for a while. “May I look around, Mrs. Billings?” I asked as I looked at the other displays. “Perhaps there’s some clue as to where the button went and how.”
“Yes, yes of course.” Then Mrs. Billings took leave of me to greet new visitors who had arrived at the museum. Thankfully, I was left alone to begin my investigation.
However, this “investigation” was merely a ruse - a way to look busy, for I had no intention at all of approving the claim. But I didn’t want to tell this to Mrs. Billings just yet. So I poked around looking at the other displays, pretending to examine them for clues.
It seemed rather easy for any of the museum’s items to be taken from their display cases. Most displays weren’t even locked, and those that were had been built with flimsy hardware and latches that were falling apart on their own. The zipper display, for example, was sealed with duct tape.
There were three or four snaps that were lying on the linoleum floor. I noticed that they probably were part of a display nearby that seemed to be missing some pieces. “This is no way to run a museum,” I thought to myself. “If you can even call this a museum.”
From the other room, Maggie could be heard talking to her dolls. It was the sound of the sweet, imaginative play that children do with their dolls. The door was open, so I peeked in just to say '“Hi". That brought an angry retort from Mrs. Billings. “Don’t bother the child!” she barked.
Oops. I didn’t intend to bother her, but I realized that I should not have ventured into the private space of the museum. I sheepishly apologized and then made one last turn to say goodbye to the girl. She waved to me with her doll in hand .
That’s when I noticed it.
Maggie’s doll was dressed in a gingham skirt with a white cotton blouse. There was a torn piece of material hanging loosely off the blouse, and it appeared to me that it had been crudely sewn together - I guessed by Maggie. And what’s more, right in the middle of the blouse was a cracked button.
I would have bet right then and there that it was made of whale bone and had saved the life of America’s greatest satirist (whose next book, Life on the Mississippi, includes that oft-quoted passage about a steamship’s captain being wounded by an arrow).
I couldn’t be sure if Mrs. Billings was pleased to have recovered the famous button, or if she was bitterly disappointed that she wasn’t going to collect the insurance money. Because as I left, she still had that fake smile that belied her displeasure.