Though few of us knew Elizabeth Hughes, all of us deeply respected the lead author of “The Big Book of Buttons.” Born in London in 1935, her collecting began when her father, a Royal Navy officer, brought, to his only child, gifts of buttons, buckles, and clasps from all over the world. In England, she earned a PhD in biology and married an organic chemist who pioneered in the field of synthetic steroids. Moving to the United States, they lived in Haverford, PA, where – in addition to authoring the Big Book with Marion Lester and writing many columns for NBS, she enjoyed gardening and sewing her own clothes and decorative items.
Her publishers were Diane and David Biesel of St. Johann’s Press, a small independent press that specializes in niche publishing of non-fiction titles. They are members of the NJSBS and of Bergen Button Club.
Elizabeth Hughes’ illness came on suddenly. The week before she passed away (June 7, 2020), she had signed off on the final proofs for Buckles and Clasps: Their history, use and design, now in print. Thanks to David Biesel for these memories of Elizabeth Hughes:
A very special lady graced our lives.
“Our problem is that you speak British English and I speak American English.” I said it with a smile, and Elizabeth laughed and said “Yes, you’re right.” We were working on the second edition of the Big Book of Buttons but it was to be a major part of our working together on that book and on the Buckles and Clasps book. Some of our differences were very minor: Do you put the comma and period inside the quotes or outside. Do you use A, B, and C or A, B and C. Do you use the American “AP downstyle” or the more Continental system of capitalization (Manager, President, etc.)?
But there were others. How do you spell Tutankhamun (Tutankhamen)? Do you follow the quote or use a standard of your choice. Over time words change both in meaning and in spelling. (Do you remember spelling to-day in the 1950s?) But her scholarship was superb. Many times she made me go to Webster’s and 99% of the time she was right. (Except for items like Newton, CT which should be Newtown, CT and is the location of Button Street.)
One of my favorite memories of her was when we first met at her house. She made lunch and said would you like coffee or tea. I said coffee, Diane said tea, and I said oh I’ll take tea then. Elizabeth raised her eyes slightly and said “David, I can make both coffee and tea at the same time.”
Perhaps my greatest problem was getting Elizabeth to realize what facing pages are. Page 233 does not face 234, it faces 232. I know that Marion Lester did the layout of the first edition and she was the one who kept “order in the house.”
When I remember Elizabeth, it is of a gifted artist who could paint a wonderful picture in words.