Where we now use zips, clothing and shoes in the 19th century used buttons. People relied on these curious looking instruments to facilitate the closing of shoes, gloves or other apparel that used buttons as fasteners. Buttonhooks were invented to pull buttons through stiff leather on shoes and boots or to fasten fiddly clothing like corsets or gloves.
They consisted of a steel hook fixed to a handle which may have been simple or decorative. Sometimes they were given away as promotions with product advertising on the handle. To use, the hook end was inserted through the buttonhole to capture the button by the shank and draw it through the opening. Both glove and shoe button hooks were used in the same manner, and both required a bit of coordination to use.
Today they make an affordable and interesting collectable with their elaborate handles and design and many can be found relatively cheaply online or at Vintage or collectables fairs.