Button Collecting: The Whole World in Miniature

Apparel buttons are some of the most popular collected items in the world and the National Button Society helps to spread the word.

by Leigh Elmore

Why is there such a big interest in collecting such mundane things as clothing buttons? Aren't they just plain plastic fasteners to hold our apparel together? Common questions from the uninitiated. If they had attended the National Button Society Convention in Springfield, MO. last month, they would have come away with a new appreciation for the humble button. I know I did.

A prize-winning collection of buttons from the National Button Society Convention.


When someone offers up the statement "I'm a button collector," the image emerges of plastic shirt buttons typically used in the apparel industry. But buttons are so much more – cultural bellwethers of trends, art styles and societal perceptions. Name a material, any material, and it has been used in button production. How about political statements, organizational affiliation, employer identification, cosmic links, religious overtures? How about flowers, plants, animal life, hobbies, Eros, classical renditions? These subjects and nearly everything imaginable have been represented on clothing buttons.

The National Button Society, organized in the 1930s, is structured around the study and dissemination of information about these fascinating and never ending items. It boasts more than 3,000 members and more than 500 of them attended the national convention.
"This is a very serious hobby," said Millicent Safro, owner of the shop Tender Buttons in New York and a dealer at the convention. "To be a collector you need to be knowledgeable and the Button Society helps make you knowledgeable." So there's no telling what you might find if you dig into that big old jar of buttons that grandmother collected over the course of her life. Households have long followed the practice of snipping buttons from clothing headed for the ragbag. Do you remember playing with your mother's – or grandmother's or great-grandmother's – button box or jar or tin?

Joni Goldberg of San Diego shows some Bakelite buttons. (photos by Leigh Elmore; button details courtesy of Barbara Weeks)

"The impulse to collect is a basic part of the human psyche, and buttons have been admired and collected for centuries," said Lisa Schulz, outgoing society president.
"Buttons reflect our history, such as manufactured items from the industrial revolution, then in the Arts and Crafts reaction to industrialization," Safro said. "Years ago the upper classes wore magnificent buttons that were miniature works of art."
Those types of buttons are the collectors' holy grails and today some of the most rare buttons can sell for tens of thousands of dollars. But the casual collector can pick up plenty of older buttons for a dollar or less. Jerry DeHay, public relations coordinator, estimated that there were 500,000 buttons in the exhibition hall that were for sale by 53 dealers, all members of the society. "At an average cost of $20 per button we're looking at about 10 million dollars just in buttons," he said.

 

An affordable hobby

Buttons as a collectible are generally available and remain affordable. The basis of a collection can be started and developed on any budget. For example, individual prices at the national show will range from fifty cents to several thousand dollars, depending on age, quality of workmanship and scarcity. "During the recent recession, values have remained relatively firm, especially in the upper end of the market. However, room remains for everyone at the button collecting table, with veterans welcoming and encouraging neophytes with pleasure," DeHay said.

Louella Yeargain of St. Charles deals in glass mounted on metal buttons from the 1890s.

Raney Gilliland of Topeka is the incoming president of the society. He, like several of the men at the convention, were drawn to button collecting by their wives. "I married into it," Gilliland said. "My wife's mother was a collector and this is a hobby that seems to get passed down."
DeHay was a college business dean at Tarleton State University in Texas and he had been in the antique business with his wife. He said he had "no aspirations" to become a button collector, but they purchased a major collection from a woman in San Antonio. "Suddenly I had a roomful of buttons. I was drafted," DeHay quipped.

He notes that buttons are the third most collected item in the United States, right behind stamps and coins. "People get hooked for various reasons. Maybe they like dogs. Well there are plenty of buttons with dog images on them. Maybe they like glass. There's a whole world of glass buttons.
"The annual convention is like a family reunion," DeHay said. "Many come back for the companionship more than the buttons. You can make friends worldwide in this group."
Franco Jacassi of Milan, Italy has been attending the annual convention for 22 years as a dealer. The owner of a vintage clothing shop says the people are what keep him coming back year after year. "There's no such organization in Italy," he explained.

 

Historical markers

19th century steel cup with pearl background

Edwardian waistcoat button with lithograph

Mid-20th century painted and buffed plastic

Millicent Safro of Tender Buttons is adamant about the educational value of button collecting, something she's been involved in for 50 years. "At first it was an interesting odd thing to do," she said. "But as I dug into the history I wanted to learn about the things that we had. Collectors seek out everything about a button from the maker, and the materials which are endless. It's a constant act of scholarship," she said. She's doing something right because her shop, Tender Buttons, is a world-wide attraction for almost any clothier or button collector who visits New York City.

Buttons can aid scholarship. Gary Embrey of Longview, TX is an expert on military buttons. He became especially interested in state militias in Louisiana from 1820 to 1845. "Most of the records of those units were destroyed during the Civil War," Embrey said. In 2008 a large collection of military buttons in Paris was put up for sale. Embrey began getting calls for advice from potential buyers. "I discovered that there were all these buttons out there that had never been cataloged in any collectors' reference books. From the inventory Embrey was able to connect and resurrect information about the existence of some obscure units of grenadiers in Louisiana prior to the Civil War. "I got all the right buttons in all the right places," Embrey said.

Not all button collectors aim so high. As DeHay says, "You can still get into the hobby very cheaply. I really enjoy dealing with teenagers." He explained that the average age of a Button Society member is 60. "We're working hard to reach out to younger people."
He noted that there is a growing interest in using vintage buttons for handcrafted jewelry items such a necklaces. "We're trying to be careful not to become a closed society," he said.
Claire Garrity of Pennsylvania loves to talk button lore. "I'm on my second collection. I never met a button I didn't like. "But I'm more of a teacher now, I'm on the lecture circuit," Garrity said. "Did you know that there's not a material known to man that they didn't make buttons from? And did you know that brass buttons were the first regulated industry? "Buttons are art in miniature," Garrity said.

 

Franco Jacassi of Milan, Italy travels to the National Button Society convention every year.

 

Pretty buttons

Just the appearance of a button is what attracts most to the hobby. Many of the most enthusiastic collectors participate in the annual national competition sponsored by the Button Society. More than 1,000 mini-collections were submitted for judging this year. Categories seem endless, but to name a few: small clear and colored glass, black glass tiles, swirlbacks, shell, transparent glass, animal figures, plant images, and on and on. Eleanor Gooden of Newton, KS was admiring the submitted entries in the competition. She's been collecting since 1981. "My mother got me into collecting with a friendship collection. I just fell in love with all of it. I collect glass, mostly Japanese," she said. "But I've overspent my limit." Joni Goldberg of San Diego was interested in buttons as a child, "I saw them through a child's eye," she said. "Then I grew up and had kids of my own. But I found my old collection. I went to a show. I found a book on buttons. I found other people. Now I've been 15 years in the Button Society."

As a dealer Goldberg caters to collectors and "I'm big on Bakelite." Right from its beginning the National Button Society has emphasized the preservation and study of clothing buttons.The National Button Society now has more than 3,000 members on four continents, with 39 of the 50 states represented by button clubs. Membership in the National Button Society is open to individuals and organizations who collect buttons and who wish to support the objectives of the NBS. Principal among those objectives are the promotion of educational research and exhibitions, the publishing and dissemination of information about buttons, and the preservation of the aesthetic and historical significance of buttons for future generations.

To learn more go to the society's website: www.nationalbuttonsociety.org

 

The Traveling Button Museum - A Dream Becomes Reality

For years, Lise McIntyre, of Bonner Springs, Kansas, held a dream. She would purchase a big old Victorian manor to house a button museum, which would become a destination for collectors and curious alike. After pursuing her passion of collecting buttons for more than two decades, she longed for a way to show others what the appeal these items can hold.

Convincing her husband, Scott, about the idea's validity was an issue. "Why couldn't he see the gloriousness of buying a fixer-upper money pit, reside in the upstairs, while allowing the buttons to promenade on the main floor?" she asked. "Who wouldn't want to live in a house constantly needing repair, sharing the space with a gazillion buttons?" So McIntyre's dream was relegated to the closet, gathering quite a bit of dust. "It would occasionally resurface but somehow more pressing matters would clamor for attention," she said.

That didn't slow her passion for buttons. "I continued to acquire buttons and related paraphernalia." The spare bedroom of her home exploded into a "buttonpalooza," every inch of its walls covered with button stuff. "Button cards, button crafts, button jokes. If it was button related, space could always be made for just one more item," she said. "I shared the concept of a museum one more time with an encouraging listener," she said. Through this process, the vision reformed. An alternative surfaced. "If I couldn't have a place visitors could access, what if the museum itself could travel?"

So McIntyre dug in and hatched a plan. She decided which buttons to highlight. She made the exhibition displays. She made sure they were portable. "Ensure visual appeal. Display a diversity of subject matter. Revamp program notes. Practice the talk. Design business cards. Develop a website. Commit to spending on necessary supplies. Tell everyone about the coming attraction. I thought if I did these things I could help people understand the buttons," she said.
The Traveling Button Museum was born and is now a reality. McIntyre presents an intriguing variety of buttons, balancing contemplativeness with tongue-in-cheek humor. The display is entwined with a program filled with tidbits of button history, usage, and a collector's love.

The Traveling Button Museum is available for groups seeking something different for their programming needs. For more information about scheduling and rates, visit the website, www.travelingbuttonmuseum.com.


Here is a listing of regional button collectors clubs that are affiliated with the National Button Society:

 

Leigh Elmore can be contacted at editor@discoverypub.com


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