Web Exclusives: Alumni Spotlight

March 10, 2004:

In Bruce Douglas ’47’s collection is a buttonhook with a Princeton insignia. (Courtesy Bruce Douglas ’47)

Collector of stories and old gadgets
Bruce Douglas ’47 owns one of the most extensive buttonhook collections

First-timers to the Chicago home of Bruce Douglas ’47 invariably wonder at the display cases filled with hooked implements, three to eight inches long, each with a distinctive handle. “They know I’m a surgeon and ask if they are surgical instruments,” says Douglas. So he launches into a detailed discourse on the items he and his wife, Jan, an occupational therapist, have collected since their honeymoon: buttonhooks.

Between the 1850s and the 1930s, buttonhooks were the gadgets that made fastening shoes, gloves, collars, corsets, and shirts relatively easy. Some handles were utilitarian — made of steel or plastic – while others were made of silver, gold, ivory, or porcelain, among other materials, and shaped like golf clubs, tennis rackets, animals, and dragons. Today, in a world of Velcro and zippers, they are fashion relics. To Douglas, who has amassed well over a thousand of them, buttonhooks represent “a lot of romance and personal stories.”

Those stories begin in 1973 at a hospital clinic in Bangkok, where Douglas and his future wife first met while on assignment with the World Health Organization. “She was using a Thai-made plastic-handled buttonhook to teach a one-armed patient to button his shirt. That was the first time I ever saw one,” Douglas recalls. The couple later decided they should share a hobby, and collecting buttonhooks became their mutual pursuit.

On Douglas’s many travels as an oral and maxillofacial surgeon, including two Fulbright professorships abroad, the collection grew.

Douglas works two days a week with indigent patients at a Chicago hospital, remains active as professor of occupational medicine at the University of Illinois School of Public Health, and consults on the health of older workers. “Wherever I go,” he says, “I scour the shelves and glass cases of antique shops for buttonhooks.”

His most treasured discovery is the one with a Princeton insignia, the only one of its kind, to his knowledge. He located it through a member of the Buttonhook Society. Says Douglas, it’s “the gem of my collection.”

By Maria LoBiondo

Maria LoBiondo is a frequent PAW contributor.