Excerpt from Daughters of the Hall
The morning sun pierced through the window and coaxed the button on the black velvet cloth alive. Its smooth facets bathed in the light, taking on the appearance of a sizeable diamond.
Jenny Hobbs, proprietor of Pine Street Antiques in Philadelphia studied the piece through her jeweler’s loupe. Made of glass, the button resembled a delicate version of the doorknobs used in the grander homes of the 19th century. A quick examination revealed that the piece, close to 150 years old by her estimation, held considerable value.
Beethoven’s “Fifth Symphony” whispered in the background as her customer’s fingers tapped on the glass counter with deliberate movements that kept in time with the music, yet expressed impatience. Message received. Jenny had ogled the button long enough, and this particular customer, accustomed to getting what she wanted when she wanted it, waited for a response.
“You don’t find too many pieces like this floating around these days, Mrs. Chadwick,” Jenny said without taking her eyes off the button. “I can’t promise an exact match, but I have reliable sources, and I’ll see what I can do.”
Jenny’s reputation as the historic authority preceded her throughout Old City society, yet she lacked the pedigree considered a prerequisite to join Martha Chadwick’s circles. Her ancestors had not fought in the Revolutionary War, and her father’s lifelong work as a butcher and the plain name he passed on to her made her a mere commoner to members of society. Yet the upper crust relied on her, today to track down a matching button for an antique garment, a rather simple task for a card-carrying member of the National Button Society, but more often to find a piece of antique furniture, or to repair a damaged setting of china or crystal. Through the years, Jenny gathered a unique set of antique buttons she kept in a safe in the back room, but none came close to the one on the cloth before her. It may not belong to her, but she knew the button would make a handsome addition to her collection.
“Do you want me to contact the retailer who sold you the dress?” Jenny asked. “Maybe we could pool our resources and double our chances. On the other hand, we could have one made to look like it. It won’t be authentic, but it will match.” Jenny had her own reasons to call the previous owner of the button, aside from helping her client. Another contact in the business, one who traveled in her circles, never hurt.
Jenny glanced at the woman across the counter with apprehension, took a deep breath, and waited for a response. Martha Chadwick’s face registered disappointment, at least as much as she could muster as she stopped tapping her fingers. She had to be close to seventy, but a skilled plastic surgeon, along with frequent Botox shots helped her look twenty years younger. The downside, she resembled Jack Nicholson’s Joker from “Batman”. Nevertheless, the tone of her voice could command a roomful of angry men, and convey any emotion her face lacked.
Martha Chadwick appeared to find joy in making people uncomfortable, her silence endless and awkward. Some described her as haughty, and with qualities similar to a gale force wind, but Jenny considered that perhaps she earned the right to be smug. You could trace her lineage back to the Revolutionary War, and to Edward Rutledge, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, a fact Mrs. Chadwick would share with anyone who would listen. This and her proper demeanor gave her the credentials to chair the chapters of several Philadelphia historic societies. Either that or she intimidated everyone and she got her way to avoid confrontation.
“I’d be happier with an authentic match,” Mrs. Chadwick said. The unpleasant smirk she tried to flash made it difficult to believe anything could make this woman happy. She appeared constipated. “We have time,” Martha Chadwick continued. “The DIH gala is months away.”
The DIH or Daughters of Independence Hall – the grandest of all historic societies whose membership included well-to-do women from Philadelphia’s Main Line and Old City neighborhoods – had the exclusiveness Martha Chadwick demanded. Inside its sacred walls, the daughters performed philanthropic acts for the community, and they did admirable work, but could handle much more if they loosened their strict membership criteria and allowed the average concerned citizen to join.
Because of their nonprofit status, the DIH received government grants to keep the club functioning, and sometimes it seemed the elite organization became more of a place for these wealthy socialites to stroke their egos than a means to help the needy in the city. Under Martha Chadwick’s reign, members were required to be descendants of one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, a rule that kept the club small, yet could be overlooked if the executive committee, which she chaired, desired. Jenny had been tempted to check the legality of maintaining exclusivity while accepting government funding. Instead, she let it go because she did not want to ruffle the feathers of the DIH women who contributed to the bulk of her business.
If Jenny had courage, she would apply again – or press the matter why the DIH turned her away last year. She could match any member with historic knowledge, and she had the added benefit of expertise in the Colonial period, a great respect for her city’s history, and a genuine desire to help. What else could they want?
Still, Jenny realized no law she either knew of or had been willing to research, demanded Martha Chadwick or her cronies to explain further. They viewed Jenny as the hired help, a servant at their disposal, not someone to share tea and gossip with, and not someone with the proper lineage.
“My daughter found the dress on the Internet if you can believe that,” Mrs. Chadwick said as if it were the most embarrassing secret she held. “From a private owner in Boston. It’s in perfect condition, except for the missing button.”
“Would you consider changing all the buttons if I find something authentic but somewhat different?” Jenny asked, again looking through her loupe before glancing back at Mrs. Chadwick. She considered it an accommodating question, but Martha’s pursed lips stated otherwise.
“Heaven’s no,” she replied, her sharp tone matching the bite in her green eyes. Perhaps they were warm once, but no amount of money or plastic surgery could make someone empathetic. Her expression changed a moment later, and she began to reconsider.
“Let’s not rule that out as a last resort. A woman who attended Washington’s inaugural ball wore this dress. Supposedly, his mistress,” she added in a hushed voice as if she did not want to embarrass the most famous of the fore fathers. Jenny resisted cracking a smile as Martha looked around to make sure they were still alone. The rare bit of pleasant conversation from her toughest client took her by surprise, and she welcomed it.
“It’s interesting you mention Washington’s inaugural ball,” Jenny said. “I saw a picture of Martha’s dress in a historical periodical last month. The story claimed it was plain because Martha didn’t care for high fashion, and she didn’t want to spend a lot of money on something so frivolous after the war.”
Jenny could relate. Mrs. Chadwick, however, did not look amused and Jenny realized she’d better change the subject – fast. It exhausted her to play games with the socialites. “How many buttons are on the dress?” she asked.
“About 15,” Mrs. Chadwick said. Of course, the woman who knew everything down to the smallest detail for every function she planned made it a point to know the exact number of buttons on the dress, so why did she have to give Jenny a difficult time? “The buttons run down the back of the entire length of the garment,” Mrs. Chadwick added.
“A sign of the times,” Jenny said. “Did you know the zipper didn’t become part of the garment industry until the early 1900s?” She often rambled when nervous. “If you ask me, it may have made dressing easier, but we lost a great sense of style when they began incorporating it, don’t you think?”
Martha Chadwick looked pleased if that was possible. “That means this button predates the zipper by about 120 years,” she said, both hands touching her cheeks in awe like a woman in menopause having a hot flash. Realistically, she was way past that phase of her life. “How valuable is it?”
Jenny carefully considered her reply. The button postdated the Revolutionary War era, she knew for sure from the artisanship, but she’d let the woman have her fantasy for now. It might have come from the Civil War era, predating the zipper by 60 years since they did not have the machinery to make the facets in the glass until the 1840s. The previous owner may have updated the buttons, or stretched the truth when selling the garment it to Mrs. Chadwick. Either way, the buttons were exquisite. “I’ll have to do a little research to pinpoint an exact amount, but I’d estimate about $100 per button.”
Jenny could tell Mrs. Chadwick believed she made a smart deal, and after assuring the safety of her acquired treasure, Jenny watched the woman walk out the door as Beethoven’s “Fifth” came to its dramatic end. The next piece on the Beethoven CD, the softer “Ode to Joy” reset the shop’s atmosphere with Martha Chadwick gone, and the irony made her grin.