ButtonsWe risked the Christmas shopping crowds yesterday to take a trip into Stockport to buy a few gifts.

Actually, it isn’t the queues at the tills that are the problem in our nearest town — we didn’t have to wait more than a few minutes to be served — but finding a place to park your car can be a nightmare at this time of year.

I can’t understand why some people drive round the car park at dangerous speeds as they get angrier and more frustrated at be unable to find a space.

The trick is to drive slowly and calmly while you watch out for people carrying bags and parcels that indicate that they might being about about to leave. And the time you spend driving round is great for composing your shopping list.

That’s where the ‘haberdashery’ comes in. One of the items on our list was ribbon that Mrs P wanted to use to hang some decorations in our living room, but where to buy it?

Time was that every High Street would have a haberdashery shop selling needles, buttons, cotton etc, but they’ve all been replaced with Starbucks and phone shops.

Even the big department stores would have a decent haberdashery department that would sell pretty much anything you needed to adjust or repair clothes. Now those same stores sell stuff so cheaply because it’s made in eastern sweat shops that no-one repairs anything any more, they simply throw it away.

But I digress from my main question which is: why haberdashery? By that I mean why do we call someone who sells needle and thread a haberdasher? It’s such an unusual word.

Apparently the word got a mention in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, but for the life of me I can’t recall it from my school days. Mind you, there’s quite a lot of Chaucer that I can’t remember. Like all of it.

Back in the 14th century, a haberdasher was a peddler who sold small wares, but there is no definitive explanation for the word itself. The most likely etymology is that it derived from the Anglo-Norman hapertas which means ‘small ware’.

And there is a Christmas connection. In Belgium and other parts of Europe, the patron saint of haberdashers is Saint Nicholas, presumably for the boost in sales he brings about every year.


Nobody’s prefect. If you find any spelling mistakes or other errors in this post, please let me know by highlighting the text and pressing Ctrl+Enter.

6 comments… Add yours
  • Reader Wil 12th December 2011

    That’s a very interesting post. I always wondered what was the origine of haberdasher. In Dutch we use a French word : a haberdashery = a fournituren winkel meaning a shop for “fournitures”( pronounced as [ ‘funitjuz ]. BTW I think you are right about the pronunciation of vis-à- vis. The z-sound makes the French language so beautiful, doesn’t it?!
    I wish you and your family a very merry Christmas and a happy New Year.
    Thanks for your visit and comment.

  • Roger Green 12th December 2011

    I was in my favorite independent bookstore Saturday, and I didn’t know where the gift-wrapping station was – it was pretty much right behind me. “Don’t you shop here during the holidays?” Well, heck, NO! I’ve been avoiding shopping in person, in December, like the plague.

  • Elizabeth 12th December 2011

    It’s an interesting word, isn’t it, Ian, and as you say, there used to be a haberdasher on every corner. I think the ‘small wares’ root must be somewhere close; there is still an Icelandic word which is very similar in sound and meaning. When Chaucer mentioned the haberdasher in his General Prologue, it was a bit of a political statement as the haberdasher’s guild had always hitherto been linked to the mercer’s guild with the patron saint, St Thomas of Canterbury. When they split to form their own guild, at about the time of Chaucer’s writing, they chose St Katherine and had her registered in the bishop of London’s registry as their patron saint. There was a bit of a to do about it all.The St Nicholas bit came much later. Fascinating etymology!

    Incidentally, re the parking problems, in Haworth, there is a notice which declares,

    ‘When Noah sailed the ocean blue
    He had his problems the same as you.
    For forty days he sailed his ark
    Before HE found a place to park’.

    I think it is meant to be consolatory! x

  • rhymeswithplague 12th December 2011

    Well, it seems there is a British definition of haberdasher and an American definition of haberdasher (what else is new?). On this side of the pond, a haberdasher is a seller of men’s clothing. Dictionary.com says “a retail dealer in men’s furnishings, as shirts, ties, gloves, socks, and hats.” Then it gives a “chiefly British” definition: a dealer in small wares and notions. Here in the former colonies, we older folk might think of what we called a “5 & 10)” meaning a “five and ten cents store” like Woolworth’s or Kresge’s. It has been a long time, though, since notions cost five or ten cents or one could even find a five and ten cents store. Nowadays, notions are most easily found in fabric stores like Jo Ann’s and Hancock’s or even, God help us all, Walmart.

  • Mr Pudding 13th December 2011

    Mr Ian, if I might be so bold, your parking place strategy is too passive. To reliably secure a prime parking spot, try bribing the parking control officers or whilst swearing and frothing at the mouth, use a rounders bat to threaten retired haberdashers who have just found free spots. I find that they then usually clear off without too much trouble.

  • Tina Smith 10th May 2012


    Collecting buttons has been one of the most popular hobbies of all times. Buttons can be used for a variety of purposes, right from holding a coat secure, to card-making and appliqué-work. But most importantly buttons add a touch of beauty and colour to life. Buttons are one of those little joys that create life delightful.

    Some museums and art galleries hold culturally, historically, politically, and/or artistically significant buttons in their collections.
    The Victoria & Albert Museum has many buttons, particularly
    in its jewellery collection, as does the Smithsonian Institution.

    Hammond Turner & Sons, a button-making company in Birmingham, hosts an online museum with an image gallery and historical button-related articles, including an 1852 article on button-making by Charles Dickens. In the USA, large button collect are on public display at The Waterbury Button Museum of Waterbury, Connecticut, and the Keep Homestead Museum of Monson, Massachusetts, which also hosts an extensive online button archive.

    Early button history

    Buttons and button-like objects used as ornaments or seals rather than fasteners have been discovered in the Indus Valley Civilization during its Kot Diji phase (circa 2800-2600 BCE) as well as Bronze Age sites in China (circa 2000-1500 BCE), and Ancient Rome.
    Buttons made from seashell were used in the Indus Valley Civilization for ornamental purposes by 2000 BCE. Some buttons were carved into geometric shapes and had holes pierced into them so that they could be attached to clothing with thread. Ian McNeil (1990) holds that: “The button, in fact, was originally used more as an ornament than as a fastening, the earliest known being found at Mohenjo-daro in the Indus Valley. It is made of a curved shell and about 5000 years old.”
    Functional buttons with buttonholes for fastening or closing clothes appeared first in Germany in the 13th century. They soon became widespread with the rise of snug-fitting garments in 13th- and 14th-century Europe.

    Clothing Buttons.


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