Persimmon Seed Buttons

By Boyd Miles
copyright 2003, 2004 by Boyd Miles

I ran across a mention of persimmon seeds used as buttons. Well, I have a persimmon tree or two near the house and I use a lot of buttons so I thought this sounded like a good experiment.
Late fall early winter try to find some persimmons. I have a few around and found out they were actually different. One tree had very round fruit and the seeds were round and very flat, the other had oval fruit and the seeds were longer and thicker. The round flat ones look more like buttons but the others will work.
With the help of two small children I gathered a bucketful of persimmons. This is a good activity for children, lots of sticky persimmons to play with.
Place the persimmons in a pot of water and boil for a few minutes, about 5 minutes worked for me.
The messy part is next; one by one squeeze the buttons out of the now firm boiled persimmons. Boiling both firms the persimmon pulp it also allows the seed to slip out of the covering, you can hardly separate the seed without boiling.
The seeds will need to be rinsed and I boiled them again for about one minute to firm them up and to remove all traces of sticky pulp.
Dry the seeds (air dry on a plate or cloth, they will stick to paper).
Drill two holes 1/16" drill bit. I mounted a bit in a short piece of dowel rod and drilled the holes by hand power but if you are careful you could use a power drill just don't blame me when you drill through your hand.
I did a test wash by sewing a few buttons to a scrap of cloth and washing and drying by machine. They held up to the one wash and should do even better with hand washing and line drying.
Good Southern buttons at little or no cost, can't beat that.

Historical notes:

Save the seeds of the persimmon after they have been boiled, and you let out the slop; for they are excellent for coffee, rather stronger and rougher than the genuine Rio [South American coffee, usually
imported from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil] hence I mix two parts of dried potatoes to one of persimmon seeds. By the boiling the seeds are rid of all mucilaginous substances and just right for coffee or buttons. If you use them for buttons, the washerwoman will hardly break them with her battling stick. For coffee, they should be parched twice as long as any other substitute, so as to make them tender in the centre.
From the Confederate Baptist, Columbia SC, Nov. 18, 1863.


Gourds, horns, pasteboard, and persimmon seeds were sometimes converted into buttons.
Ersatz in the Confederacy
By Mary Elizabeth Massey
Boiling them sticks and all.
Ready to squeeze out the seeds.
Seeds ready to wash, dry and drill.
Without boiling you have this hard to remove pulp. Take my word for it and boil them whole.
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Sycamore Ball Lamps

By Boyd Miles
copyright 2003 , 2004

When reading about the Civil War and life of the times you come across bits of information that just beg to be explored. So you read all the accounts you can find and yet you want to know more. Sycamore ball lamps were one such item for me; I just had to know how they looked. So I experimented.
First you have to gather some sycamore balls, this is a good excuse to take a walk with the kids, get some fresh air and discover nature. You kind of have to do this late fall and early winter by spring most of the balls are gone but you might still find some.
Take your balls home (they are the seeds of the sycamore tree, lots of little seeds around a core) and dry them, I sped the process in a warm not hot oven.
Get the used cooking fat you have been saving (or fry up some cheap hamburger or bacon for the fat) and melt it. Put your balls in a jar or more period stoneware container. Pore the fat in the container of balls. This gives you a group of balls ready to use as wicks already pre-soaked with grease.
Put some oil in a dish; remember it gets hot so be sure to use a dish that can take the heat. Then add two or three balls (it makes them easier to light if you use more than one to start). Using a match or tinder stick, place your fire source across the top of the balls. Once one lights well enough you should remove the others, one is enough.
Soon the fat melts in the dish and moves up through the wick and burns in a flickering but bright light. They use a lot of fat; the dish shown burned about an hour. If you let the fat burn out the ball itself begins to burn with a great deal of smoke. Other than when you let the ball burn without oil there is far less smoke and odour than you would think.
The ball you just used should be well charred now and if you paid attention will not actually be burned. It will light easier the next time you use it, a well-charred ball seems to work much better than a new one.

Historical notes:

I have studied my Latin lessons and read the wonderful stories of Walter Scott many a night by the light of a sycamore ball floating in a cup of grease.
Victor C. Vaughan, M.D., LL.D.
October 27, 1851 - November 21, 1929

Thomas Stanley was one of the early settlers who entered the land where Bedford now stands, It is said that he lived for a time in a hollow sycamore tree, and read Shakespeare by the light of a sycamore ball floating in a saucer of coon grease.
History of Bedford (MO)
by Mrs. W. F. Figg


Another simple method of lighting was the placing of sycamore balls or sweet gum globes in a shallow bowl filled with some sort of oil or grease, usually lard. The results were interpreted differently by various users. A young girl declared that they produced a "fairylike light"; a gentleman thought they made a "sickly glare".
Ersatz in the Confederacy
By Mary Elizabeth Massey

My 8-year-old daughter really liked the light, she agreed with the "fairylike light" description.

This involves outdoor activity, hot grease, fire, smoke, risk of cancer, matches, heat, burnt fingers, ringing alarms, trips to emergency rooms, smoking rubble, death and destruction. Don't blame me if your house burns down with you in it if you follow my directions. If you want light in your house call an electrician to come flip the switch for you, better yet sit in the dark. Honestly now the dish does get hot and there is an open flame and hot grease, take care.
Female Impersonators of the Mid 19th Century

By Boyd Miles

I met a person doing a very difficult impression at a recent Gettysburg event (as this was published in 1995 it must have been the 1994 event).  His impression was as a female impersonator of the 19th Century and he was doing it well.

Just as some women dressed as men there were some men that dressed as women.  for some it may have been just a way to get work, others did it for psychological reasons, and some people just liked to dress as women.  In a time when dress and gender were more firmly linked it would have been easier to pass than today.  here are some 19th Century examples of female impersonators.

An Irish actress by the name of Lavinia Edwards used the stage name of Miss Walstein.  Lavinia lived with her 17 year old sister Maria in England.  They were supported by a Mr. Thomas Smith.  On January 23, 1833 Maria went for a doctor. Lavinia was very ill.  Medical help was too late and poor Lavinia, aged 24, died.  The coroner found two things: Lavinia died of cirrhosis of the liver and she was a he.

Lavinia had passed as a woman for at least 10 years and even close friends didn't know.  He was described as "most lady like".  His true name was never found out and Maria was not his sister.

On May 6, 1858 Jenny de Savalette de Lange died at her apartment in Versailles at age 68.  She had, in her life, been engaged six times but never married, (the first three times to army officers that later took foreign posts).

At her death a fifty year secret was revealed.  Jenny was a man.

Jenny was not particularly attractive but had many well placed friends.  He was supported by a royal pension and was given an apartment in Versailles.  When Jenny walked down the street, folks would say after she passed, "how much she resembles a man."

On June 11, 1862 the Provost Guard at Fredericksburg, Virginia made the following  note: "Private Thomas Stewart, Company A, First Pennsylvania Artillery, was dressed in a female dress and very disorderly when arrested."

It is unknown if he did this often or just this once.

In one of the strange coincidences of fate, another actress by the name of Edwards also died at age 24, this one in 1873.  Eliza Edwards "with her beautiful long hair parted in the middle" was indeed a man.

Sometime before 1876 a man posing as a woman was arrested for stealing women's clothing.  Also two more men were reported in 1890 who were successfully living as women.  One was a lady's maid and the other a teacher.  The employers of both were fooled.

Serving with the 7th Cavalry in the west was a laundress known as Mrs. Nash.  Mrs. Nash had lived with several soldiers of the 7th from 1868 to 1878.  As they left the service (or were killed by Indians) a new one would move in.  While her current "husband", a Corporal, was on active campaign in the summer of '78 she took ill and died.  As in most of these cases, dead men do tell tales.  Mrs. Nash was a man.

When word reached the field you may be sure that the men had unkind words for the poor Corporal.  In a fit of grief and embarrassment, the Corpora used his revolver for a purpose not intended by the Army.

Another post-war case of interest was Mr. James Robbins of Maine.  Robbins, a Civil War veteran, did not pose as a woman but dressed as one at home.  He did not attempt to hide his "hobby".  He didn't leave his property dressed as a woman, likely to avoid legal problems, although he did wear women's shoes, size 6, to town.

He always dressed in the latest fashions, made for him by the best local dressmakers.  It was said that with his long black hair and fine clothes, he wasn't bad looking.  Jim insisted his wife keep his dresses ironed, which was quite a bit of work as he changed several times a day.  His afternoon gowns were said to be quite elaborate and he had a favorite cashmere gown just to wear in the orchard.

Some of these men were homosexuals but others, like Jim, were not.  Homosexuals were not unknown in the Civil War period but the word was.  The word "homosexual" was not coined until 1869.  "Uranian" was coined in 1862 by Karl Ulrichs, a German social scientist of the 1860's.  This was Germanized by 1865 to "Urning" but this term was not likely to have been used here at the time.

"Sodomy" (the act) and "Sodomites" (the actors) are more proper period terms.  "Bugger" (noun and verb) was also used and so common was the term that it even appeared in the 1864 Webster's Dictionary.  "Mollies", an 18th Century term was also in use. (Mother Clap was arrested for running a Molly house in 1726)

The term "transvestite" is also post-war as is "eonism".  The correct terms for our period seem to be "Hermaphrodites" and "Impersonators". 

Karl Ulrichs, writing under the name of Numa Mumantius, advocated legal rights for "urnings" as early as 1862.  He wanted the act decriminalized and for members of the same sex to legally marry.  Now that is something to add to your first person camp fire discussions, isn't it?

Webster's Dictionary of 1864
Oxford English Dictionary
Psychopathia Sexualis, Richard von Kraft-Ebing
Studies in the Psychology of Sex, Havelock Ellis
The Mysteries of Sex, C.J.S. Thompson
Gay American History, Jonathan Katz
The Story the Soldiers Wouldn't Tell, Thomas P. Lowry

copyright 1995, 2008 by Boyd Miles