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From Vagina Obscura: An Anatomical Voyage by Rachel E. Gross:

As a child, Miriam dreamed of becoming a doctor like her father, Dr. Friedman, who had practiced medicine in Chedrin, Latvia. 'A real country doctor', as she called him, his patients came in horse and buggy and paid him in buttons.

I reckon it means "very little" in this context, but I've found on the Internet other instances where there's an opposition between "buttons" and "cash". For example:

But she'll have to pay in buttons instead of cash because she's a little strapped right now?

(from When in Doubt, Add Butter by Beth Harbison)

which makes me think that there was a token of sorts that people used for payment in lieu of cash.

I can't find a definitive answer and would appreciate your insight.

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    Is it possible that passage is to be read literally? A rural/country doctor in Latvia taking payment in buttons (for clothing)?
    – BruceWayne
    Commented Jun 23, 2022 at 20:30
  • 1
    Actually at one time it was common to make buttons out of low denomination coins. Buttons designed to look like coins are still widely used. In a pinch people could remove these punched coins and use them as payment. Commented Jun 24, 2022 at 15:40
  • Asking if people were ever paid in buttons might be on-topic on History SE but is surely off-topic here.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Nov 20, 2023 at 22:43
  • Well, when you have to translate that sentence, it becomes totally relevant to know whether people were in fact paid in buttons or not in order to understand if the sentence has a literal meaning or if it is a figure of speech.
    – Noelia
    Commented Nov 22, 2023 at 9:34

7 Answers 7

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Being / get paid in buttons. It's probably not common enough to be classed as an idiom, but it's one of the most transparent metaphors imaginable. Cambridge Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, AHD and R H K Webster's don't list the expression, though Collins and Lexico come close:

button 1.3 Used in reference to things of little worth.

  • He will never give away anything that is worth a button.

The more common synonym is get paid in peanuts / pay someone peanuts: pay / be paid far less than is seen to be reasonable.

Here are a few typical examples from the internet:

  • Social Services – immoral, illegal or just plain useless? [31 Aug 2012] — I never came across one member of SS staff that I would have paid in buttons. For us, they made a difficult job almost impossible.

[Alzheimer's Society_Discussion Forum]

  • The strange thing is that in games such as professional rugby and soccer, referees are paid in buttons compared with the people who play the game. In Gaelic games, referees get little more than abuse.

[Sean Kilfeather; The Irish Times; 1997]

And a twist on the straightforward rendering:

  • D'Avenza is the one place you could be paid in buttons – wild Indian buffalo horn buttons – and be happy about it. They cost a fortune.

[Buttons Online; 2017]

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    I read Merriam-Webster's and Collins' definitions of 'buttons' as 'something of little worth' and inferred that 'pay in buttons' meant 'pay little money', I just wondered if there was a time when actual buttons were used as currency in poor areas. Thank you for the insight.
    – Noelia
    Commented Jun 23, 2022 at 10:11
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    It's commonly used idiom in British English, IME. Commented Jun 23, 2022 at 18:10
  • There are a mere 5000 Google hits in a search for "paid in buttons". Opinions come a long way behind basic research. Commented Jun 23, 2022 at 19:36
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    I recall reading a story in a textbook, probably in the late 50s, that described a store that had a cash drawer that contained a number of buttons in addition to the coins. This would have portrayed an era before plastic buttons when matching a lost button was a non-trivial task.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Jun 23, 2022 at 20:17
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    "most transparent metaphor imaginable" seems pretty harsh to anybody who didn't get it.
    – user121330
    Commented Jun 24, 2022 at 19:47
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It means paying in actual buttons, but facetious because they would not be enough to pay a doctor's bill.

Small amounts of currency in the UK used to be acceptable as buttons or pins. There is an expression in the language which derived from the use of pins. Farlex has

for two pins

At the slightest provocation; for the smallest reason. Primarily heard in UK.

I know this practice existed but can't find any reference to it.

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    In this answer @BoldBen stated I understand that papers of pins were often given in place of a farthing's change, probably because the wholesale price was less than a farthing but also because there was, in the early days of the industrial revolution, a shortage of low-denomination coinage. No reference there either. Commented Jun 23, 2022 at 8:23
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    Pins and buttons both show up in the expression "don't give/care a X", in addition to a number of other worthless items.
    – Laurel
    Commented Jun 23, 2022 at 15:37
  • @Laurel I added another contribution to that linked answer of yours. Commented Jun 23, 2022 at 16:15
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Poor rural people are often cash strapped even today in places like the US and England, it was much worse in the past.

So, it’s common to hear tales of professionals (particularly Doctors) being paid in barterable goods such as sugar, cows, wheat, corn, apples, pigs, sheep or in this case buttons.

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  • Glass bead making - I can't find anything about using them for buttons, but certainly for trade.
    – Mazura
    Commented Jun 25, 2022 at 20:27
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It's a way of expressing something of little worth, and I don't feel that either of the examples quoted by Noelia sits comfortably with British usage as I know it. Are the sources from elsewhere? My late father - a lifelong engineer - would say of people whose work he didn't rate highly "I wouldn't pay him in washers", which are another coinlike object of little value.

At the risk of going a little off track, I can confirm, again from my father, that a small packet of pins was often given by haberdashers in place of a farthing's change. A lady he knew saved up the packets and insisted on paying for something with them, much to the shopkeeper's annoyance. Before the advent of mass-production, pins were hand-made and quite expensive, which led to the almost-rhyme "See a pin and pick it up, and all the day you'll have good luck.

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    Both quotes are from books by American authors.
    – Noelia
    Commented Jun 23, 2022 at 15:51
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If you are in a setting when donations or payments are expected, a button can pass in the moment and easily be explained if detected and an explanation becomes necessary.

“Who put these buttons in the offering plate today?” I asked, holding the buttons in the palm of my hand.

A tiny little girl with big green eyes, bigger now because of her fear, slowly raised her hand.

“I did, Brother Jim.”

“Why did you do that?” Apparently, she heard the disapproval in my voice. Her big green eyes filled with tears.

With her voice breaking, she said, “I didn’t mean to do anything bad. I just wanted to make an offering to God, like you said we should. But I don’t have any money like the other people. So I asked my Momma what could I give and she gave me those buttons from her sewing box. She said maybe somebody could use the buttons to help someone make some clothes.”

https://goodfaithmedia.org/think-twice-when-you-find-buttons-in-your-offering-plate-cms-19801/

The mother's explanation was meant to give the girl enough confidence to pass off the button, and avoid shaming the family for not having enough money. The pastor was not convinced by the mother's story, but he knew the girl was and meant it.

Clearly, a button can only hide amongst enough real coinage.

If you only pay in buttons, you don't pay enough real coinage to hide it amongst, it means that you can't properly hide that you aren't paying, and your inability to pay is obvious.

If you can afford to arrive in horse and buggy, you ought to be able to afford to pay, so there's nothing to hide or excuse that failure.

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    It's worth noting that at the time this phrase came into popularity, most buttons were made out of metal, and thus slightly easier to blend into a pile of coins than modern, mostly plastic buttons. Commented Jun 24, 2022 at 18:47
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I've had the chance to ask the author and, in this particular instance, it means "being paid in actual buttons or a similar token", and not "being paid a pittance". I appreciate your feedback.

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  • That's awesome to learn!
    – tchrist
    Commented Jul 31, 2022 at 22:54
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I was born in the 60's in Manchester, UK. My parents would use the phrase "it costs buttons". This meant it was of little financial cost. I now assume this must therefor be a mancunian only phrase. It may date back to Manchester being known as Cottonopolis. Then when mass produced buttons became available, what were valuble handmade buttons became valueless.

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