Tired of Buttoning and Unbuttoning

Englishman? Frenchman? Lord Byron? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The quotidian activities of life induce lassitude and even despondency in some people. I have heard that an eighteenth century suicide note placed blame upon the following perpetual exercise:

I weary of all this buttoning and unbuttoning.

Is this tale genuine or apocryphal?

Quote Investigator: In 1758 “The Public Advertiser” of London printed a piece titled “On Life” by G. S. that highlighted the stupefying task of manipulating buttons. Emphasis added to excerpts:[ref] 1786 October 23, The Public Advertiser, For the Public Advertiser: On Life by G. S., Quote Page 1, Column 3 and 4, London, England. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

Life as a repetition of the same dull, insipid routine of insignificant actions of buttoning and unbuttoning, of sleeping and waking, of eating, and hunger returning, and these ditto, ditto repeated…

The article recommended spiritual faith and thoughts of Heaven to overcome unhappiness.

In 1792 a collection of anecdotes and wit published in London titled “Scrapeana: Fugitive Miscellany” edited by John Croft included a claim about a suicide note. The name of the deceased was omitted:[ref] 1792, Scrapeana: Fugitive Miscellany, Editor: John Croft, Quote Page 97, Sans Souci, London. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

Colonel _______ shot himself, and left a paper on the table expressing that he was grown weary of life, and tired of buttoning and unbuttoning, adding this verse:

The very best remedy after all,
Is a good resolution and a ball.

The “ball” was probably a reference to early bullets which were spherical in that time period. QI does not know whether this story was based on an actual event or simply a morbid joke.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1813 the famous English poet Lord Byron wrote a passage in his personal journal that discussed the tedium of life in a way reminiscent of the 1758 citation:[ref] 1838, Life, Letters, and Journals of Lord Byron: Complete in One Volume, Chapter 29: 1813, Date of Entry: December 7, 1813, Quote Page 213, John Murray, London. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

“Went to bed, and slept dreamlessly, but not refreshingly. Awoke, and up an hour before being called; but dawdled three hours in dressing. When one subtracts from life infancy (which is vegetation),—sleep, eating, and swilling—buttoning and unbuttoning—how much remains of downright existence? The summer of a dormouse.

In 1822 “The Sporting Magazine” of London mentioned the purported incident:[ref] 1822, The Sporting Magazine: Or, Monthly Calendar, Volume 9, Pleasure (continuation), Start Page 278, Quote Page 281, Column 2, Printed for Pittman, London. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

One of our chief pleasures arises from novelty. A life of perpetual sameness would be little better than a dungeon, and nothing is more difficult to endure. It is recorded of a gentleman who shot himself, that the only reason he gave for it was–that he was tired of buttoning and unbuttoning.

In 1825 “The Kaleidoscope” of Liverpool, England printed a version of the suicide letter:[ref] 1825 June 28, The Kaleidoscope; Or, Literary and Scientific Mirror, Volume 5, Liverpool Mechanics’ School of Arts, Start Page 438, Quote Page 439, Column 2, Printed and Published by E. Smith & Company, Liverpool, England. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

The letter was of so singular a description, that it was calculated to make the company laugh and cry at the same time. It was couched in the following terms:—-“Dear Friend, I am tired of buttoning and unbuttoning, and so I am off. Give my compliments to all inquiring friends.”

In 1837 “The Southern Literary Journal” of South Carolina described two unfortunate episodes:[ref] 1837 July, The Southern Literary Journal, and Monthly Review, Volume 1, Number 5, Modern Improvements, Start Page 421, (Asterisk footnote), Quote Page 432, Published by J. S. Burges, Charleston, South Carolina. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

We have heard of a well authenticated case of an Englishman who killed himself, merely because he could not digest buttered muffins, of which he happened to be particularly fond: and there are innumerable instances of others who have made way with themselves from equally frivolous causes. It is related of another who destroyed himself, that he alleged no other cause of discontent or unhappiness, than that he was tired of buttoning and unbuttoning.

In 1859 “Harper’s New Monthly Magazine” mentioned the tale:[ref] 1859 March, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, Volume 18, A Matter of Life and Death, Quote Page 516, Column 2, Harper & Brothers, New York. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

The love of life is said to be one of the most powerful and lasting instincts of the human soul. And yet, an Englishman of the last century shot himself because he was tired of buttoning and unbuttoning his clothes!

In 1888 “The Cambridge Review” of Cambridge, England stated that the disheartened individual was a Frenchman:[ref] 1888 March 15, The Cambridge Review: A Journal of University Life and Thought, Volume 9, Number 223, On Old Clothes, Quote Page 269, Column 1, Printed for the Proprietors by J. Austin Fabb and William Tyler at The Office of The Cambridge Review, Cambridge, England. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

That Frenchman was a very morbid specimen of humanity who committed suicide because he was “tired of this eternal buttoning and unbuttoning,” and can only be regarded with pity, perhaps almost amounting to contempt, by those who review the whole duty of life with more healthy minds.

In conclusion, the tale of a suicide note referring to “buttoning and unbuttoning” appeared in a book of humor and wit in 1792. This location suggests that the event might be apocryphal. During subsequent years the text of the note varied, and the nationality of the deceased person also varied.

Image Notes: Picture of colorful buttons from _Alicja_ at Pixabay.

(Great thanks to David Orlowski whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

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