This week's mystery artifact inspired many clever guesses, including a cincher for laces, sardine can opener, fish scaler, decorative pie crust sealer, honey dipper, and nose-picker (although I hope you were joking, Susan)! The guess 'cincher for laces' is not far off, although this handy little artifact came along to replace the need for laces on clothing or shoes: it is a buttonhook, for buttoning up articles of clothing or shoe buttons.
A buttonhook is a helpful piece of technology, as can be seen in this video:
Although buttonhooks today are marketed as adaptive technology for patients who struggle with fine-motor skills, one hundred years ago buttonhooks were a necessary part of most peoples' daily routines. They reached their popularity between the 1890's and 1920's, when most items of clothing, including jackets, vests, gloves, and skirts, were fastened with rows and rows of buttons. A pair of boots alone could include over 50 buttons - which would take a substantial amount of time while dressing! However, it was noted by Jerome Sholem, a shoe salesman from Champaign, that buttons were far better than laces. He said, "I was happy to see the change. I spent hours lacing and unlacing those tall shoes and I was sick of it." (The Sholem family were cobblers who immigrated to our region, switching to shoe sales with the advent of mass-produced shoes; the Sholem building still stands on East Main Street, emblazoned with the logo "Home of Good Shoes").
Buttonhooks were a time-saving invention that found at home on most women's dressing tables and, according to some sources, on many women's chatelaines, as well. They come in all shapes and sizes, many marketed as part of a matched dressing-table set:
Buttonhooks also became a popular trench-art item during the First World War, with soldiers creating and sending home buttonhooks made from shell casings. These examples are on display at the Bedford Museum, UK:
Add to the time spent buttoning clothing the fact that most fashionable middle- and upper-class women would make several changes of clothing throughout the day: from morning dresses to tea gowns to day dresses to evening wear. We may joke about "dressing for dinner" today, but it was very much a daily reality for women around the turn of the century!
Buttonhooks were a necessity of life through the turn of the century, until the mass-marketing of zippers on children's clothing in the 1930's introduced a new trend in the clothing industry. I, for one, am pleased that they did - I find it hard enough to get myself and my daughters out the door in the morning without worrying about a thousand-and-one buttons to hook!