Singing about the button in 1891

August 14, 2006 | 1 Comment

As early as 1890, the button was becoming entrenched into the popular culture of public life. So popular that there was a song written about it.

In 1891, W.S. Mullaly and Webster Fulton wrote “You Press the Button, We Do the Rest”, titled after the Kodak advertising slogan (mentioned in the last Button post). Naturally, it marvels at the wonders of the Kodak camera. But more amazing, it also mentions other ways the button was introduced, and the frustrations therein. It draws connections between different technologies and focuses squarely on the button as a sign that times are changing.
You Press the Button, We Do the Rest

(Thanks to the PBS American Experience show about George Eastman for this entire post. Check out the mp3 there.)

Dig these lyrics.

We’re living at a rapid pace I vow,
These times are filled with fancies strange and queer,
Electric snaps are now familiar things,
New wonders great are bobbing up each year.

Thanks to the industrial revolution, inventions were showing up at a “rapid pace … bobbing up each year.” The telegraph connected the world. Locomotives connected the East and West coast of the US. The telephone began to connect individuals. For us in 2006, this pace of change is cute, but change is always rapid in the eyes of the beholder. Our pace of change will be adorable to someone 100 years from now. In fact, change may itself be currency. Can you spare some change?

Note that buttons are also called “electric snaps.” Buttons, snaps. Clothing metaphors were used to explain this new technology.

In olden days for pictures they would sit,
In attitude like this an awful guy!
But now a days the Kodak changes that,
And photographs are captured on the fly!

Isn’t it simple? Isn’t it quick?
Such a small box, It must be a trick!
How do you work it? What is the test!
You press the button, we do the rest!

The magic of the small box. Press the button to take photographs, not like the olden days of three years earlier! This song was written only three years after Eastman introduced the Kodak camera.

No longer is a cottage small our home,
Apartment buildings come to take their place,
We all before the janitor bow down,
The elevator boys the toughest case!

He’s always down when you are at the top,
When you’re in haste, he’s reading or asleep!
You ring an hour and then an hour you wait,
You swear and he replies, well walkin’s cheap.

Isn’t it tiresome? Isn’t it slow?
He makes you wait above or below,
Oh what a nuisance! Oh what a pest!
You press the button, he takes a rest!

The 1880s saw a massive migration of people from rural town to urban cities, forcing cities to go vertical. That means elevators — the first electric elevators were built in the US in 1887. But how do you use them? Push the elevator button, which calls the elevator boy to come to your floor. But you can’t trust that boy, always reading or asleep!

Last week I traveled far into the West,
To Iowa and Kansas both I went,
And plainly saw how Prohibition works,
‘Twas funny just as an experiment.

A hotel man may keep a stock of drugs,
And when the thirsty pilgrim seeks the bar,
The clerk, with many smiles will read the rules,
As posted on the door and there you are!

One ring for water, Two rings for ice,
Three for a lemon, or sugar or spice.
Don’t give the snap away, This their request!
You press the button, They do the rest!

Here’s another example of using a button to get somebody’s attention. Press the button the correct number of times for water, ice, or whatever. The code gets you what you want, but don’t tell anybody!

It’s a sure sign that something has hit mainstream when a popular song is written about it. It’s a testament to how much something is being thought of. How much is it affecting everyday life. Frankly, I was really surprised to discover this song. That would be the equivalent of someone writing a song about Ajax today. Well, finding any song about the button is odd enough, let alone one written in 1891.

The next step: learn to play it on the ukulele.


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