Black History Month: The Button Doll, c.1932

For the first day of Black History Month, we would like to introduce our Button Doll!

This amazing doll was made by Emma Green Lewis of Hamilton between 1929 and 1932. It’s covered, top to bottom, in a beautiful array of buttons Emma collected from family and friends, carefully sewn onto a green gingham dress.

Emma Lewis was the daughter of Mary-Anne Green, who came to Canada in 1858 after escaping enslavement in South Carolina. Emma was born in Collingwood and worked as a tailoress before moving to Hamilton and marrying Cornelius Lewis of Simcoe in 1900. Several of the doll’s buttons come from Cornelius’ time as a waiter on the Grand Trunk Railway.

They had 4 children, including Raymond “Rapid Ray” Lewis, the first Canadian-born Black Olympic medalist. Like his father, and many other Black men of the period, Ray worked as a railway porter. While training, he often ran along the train tracks during stopovers on the Canadian Prairies. The Canadian Pacific Railway buttons on the doll come from Ray.

Emma and Cornelius were both prominent members of Hamilton’s Black community and attended services at Stewart Memorial Church, Canada’s oldest black congregation. Many buttons perhaps come from Sunday dresses and suits.

Other buttons include one commemorating a Royal Visit, another from the Royal Canadian Flying Corps in which Black Hamiltonian Lincoln Alexander served, and one from the Hamilton Fire Department. Sadly, the stories behind many will never be known.

The Lewis family donated the doll in 1964, likely through the influence of Alden Brown, a family friend and a founding member of the Dundas Historical Society.

See this doll in person in our new Feature Exhibition, Valley of the Dolls, opening this Saturday, February 4th! 1pm – 4pm. You’re welcome to try to count the buttons for yourself!

With a Friends of the Museum Special Preview at 6pm, Thursday, February 2nd (that’s tomorrow!).