© 2003 Penny LeCouter
Napeolon’s Buttons is microhistory in the truest sense of the world, a mix of science and history that not only dwells on the historical impact of various substances (cotton, sugar, chloroflourocarbons, silk), but examines the science behind their invention — presenting a diagram of a silk molecule, for instance, to explain why it is so smooth and lustrous. At times, the connections to global history are a bit of a stretch, as when the author repeats speculation that lead poisoning brought down the Roman empire and leads off with musing over the prospect that decaying lead buttons doomed Napoleon’s winter expedition. At other times, there is no denying the impact; Britain’s interest in southeast Asia, for instance, involved three resources of import: opium, caffiene, and tobacco, and as covered by John Keay’s The Spice Trade, interest in nutmeg (among other spices) spurred on the age of discovery. LeCouter’s chosen topics interact with one another, however, and the chapter she leads off with (abscorbic acid) informs the latter section on the age of discovery. An era inaugurated by the search for one topic was made possible only through another: if scurvy had continued to claim the lives of European seamen, such extended voyages would not have been possible. Buttons combines the usual close-to-home historical interest of works like Salt and An Edible History of Humanity with a strong dose of chemistry.