Have a Yen for Goofies, Ringers and Igloos? — You’ve Been Bitten by the Button Bug
A collection of Victorian buttons, including a gorgeous high relief Geisha with Parasol, cranes with a tree and a Samurai made of brass and copper.
In a St. Louis hotel elevator during a convention, several women were talking about the judging of their trays of heads when a man asked if they were a group of morticians. The women were in fact button collectors attending a button convention, and “heads” referred to buttons showing heads of people. The man could just as easily have heard the collectors say how much they like “studs” or their collections of “rubbers.” Words like “goofies,” “ringers,” “measles,” and “igloos” abound in the button world.
Button collectors have had their own language since the modern hobby of button collecting began in America during the Depression. It all started in 1938 with a woman named Gertrude Patterson who talked enthusiastically about button collecting on the radio program, “Hobby Lobby.” It created a sensation among American women who had more time than money at a time when buttons were plentiful and inexpensive. Button collecting quickly rose to one of the top three hobbies, along with stamp and coin collecting.
Button collectors in the United States organized a year later to form the National Button Society. Button clubs became very popular for American women and a small percentage of men. Club meetings were exuberantly started with “rouser songs,” and holidays were elaborately celebrated with button-related club parties. Today there are more than 4,600 members in the National Button Society, representing 15 countries, and the enrollment is increasing every year.
There are also state and local chapters, plus independent clubs, and of course, there are innumerable button collectors who aren’t members of any club.
A button from the Indiana Button Society. It is a bright stamped brass top and back with a round wire shank and is stamped on the back, Waterbury Button Co.
The National Button Society and the state chapters have annual conventions in the United States where buttons are displayed and sold. Members compete against each other with buttons collections that are arranged on trays according to material or subject matter. Collectors must follow very precise rules for these competitions. In producing trays, collectors act like curators putting together museum shows. Judges then award prizes for the best trays, based on technical and aesthetic qualities.
Button collectors walk from table to table at button shows examining buttons with their Sherlock Holmes type magnifiers. They push their hands and fingers through “poke” boxes, bowls or trays of inexpensive buttons for sale. What might be considered odd behavior to the uneducated button person is actually a button detective at work. One might see a collector clinking a button against teeth, pricking it with a hot pin or holding a magnet next to it. She or he might also smell the button or plop it into a glass of water. These are all little tests to determine the composition of the button. The buttons displayed at these conventions are truly splendorous. The Los Angeles Times reported about the California State Button Show: “There wasn’t a zipper in sight. Had there of been, it would probably have been carved, jeweled and signed.”
Vintage metal button covers featuring filigree flower in silver tones, circa 1940.
Button prices can vary from 25 cents for a “poke box button” to several thousand dollars for a rare button from the 18th century. When the Los Angeles Times reporter asked a button collector about the value of buttons at an annual button show, the woman hesitated. “You see,” she said, “the girls don’t want their husbands to know what they pay for some of their buttons.” Another woman concurred, saying, “Our husbands have no idea how much we spend on buttons.”
In the past, collectors have found old buttons in their grandmothers’ or neighbors’ button boxes, in attics and old trunks, and on charm strings. There aren’t many of Granny’s old button boxes left, unfortunately. Old buttons can still sometimes be bought at flea markets, rummage sales, garage sales, antiques shops and antiques shows, but the most common sources for old buttons today are button dealers, mail order businesses, video auctions and live auctions.
Button clubs have arrangements with button vendors where the clubs receive “approvals,” which are batches of buttons sent through the mail. The club members may buy the buttons they want and return the rest. At many clubs, when more than one member wants to purchase a particular button, they draw lots.
An early celluloid piece of advertising for Bradley's Fertilizers. The button has a patent date on the edge: July 21, 1896.
Occasionally, collectors come across buttons in surprising ways. One woman in New York has a dog named Lady who digs up buttons from the farm land where they live. Lady averages one or two buttons a day. Another collector hunted for buttons in her neighbor’s backyard with a spoon and stick. Surrounded by a goat and chickens, the woman has found several prize buttons.
American button collectors have a long-standing reputation for fierce determination in getting their buttons, and the button-collecting world has its share of people who are obsessive about their endeavor. In The Maine Charm String magazine, Elinor Graham wrote about a determined button collector, “As far as buttons were concerned, she became completely predatory. In fact, when she took time to examine her motives, it gave her cause to worry about her immortal soul.”
One well-known collector said, “I think if there were a fire, I’d grab my buttons first, my dog second, and my husband on the way out.” Another collector admits to having filched a button right off a flight attendant’s uniform when it was hanging by the bathroom in an airplane. She carries a little pair of scissors with her, so her job was neat and tidy. Yet another has been known to conduct button business from the hospital, keeping her button stock under the bed.
It took Frieda Warther more than 35 years to assemble the 73,000 buttons that cover the walls and ceiling of the Button House at the Warther Museum in Dover, Ohio. When asked how his mother got so many buttons, Frieda Warther’s son often replies, “She begged, borrowed, bought, and in the end, she even stole.” He explains that his mom taught Sunday school for years and was a good Christian woman. But when she was in her nineties, she found herself in a nursing home with a broken hip. One day a nurse came to work wearing a London Fog raincoat. When the nurse left for home that evening, there wasn’t a button left on it!
Frieda Warther in the Button House at the Warther Museum in Dover, Ohio.
When Dalton Stevens, known as the Button King, was a guest on the Johnny Carson’s show, and trice on Late Night Show with David Letterman, where he famously snipped a button off Lettermen’s shirt. Stevens is known for covering almost everything in sight with buttons, including his clothes, shoes, musical instruments, outhouse, toilet, a car with 100,000 buttons, and his future hearse and coffin. The hearse reportedly has more than 600,000 buttons.
Another collector tells of nearly being thrown in jail in Mexico for adoringly touching an elaborate button on a Mexican police officer’s uniform.
Button collectors distinguish between accumulating buttons and collecting them. True button collectors, as a result of their hobby, are extremely-well educated people, who are usually delighted to share their knowledge. Early button collectors studied pre-historic remains, costumes, old-fashion magazines and documents, manuscripts, diaries, letters, wills, inventories, bills, memorial brasses, graves, needlework books, effigies, tapestries and paintings to gain knowledge about buttons.
Serious button collectors today still like to know how, when, and where buttons were made. They study buttons for the materials used, method of construction, decoration, manufacturer, history, backmarks, hallmarks and subject matter. Since buttons have encompassed nearly every conceivable subject, their study provides a broad liberal arts education, including obscure bits of fascinating information.
In addition to uncovering history and adding enormously to mankind’s wealth of knowledge, button collectors have been associated with charitable causes for more than 100 years. The button-covered costermongers in London, known as the Pearlie Kings and Queens, are famous for their financial contributions to the hospitals in England starting in the late 1800s. At that time in England there was no National Health Service, so it was essential that people raise money continually in order for the hospitals to operate.
Boxed set of decorative silver buttons, circa 1898.
For many years buttons were collected by the Button Committee in Bristol for the Church of England’s Children Society. The Button Committee organized a nationwide button appeal and then cleaned, sorted, carded, and priced the buttons. Millions of buttons were given and sold, raising £32,000 Sterling for charity. One of the promotions was called “Start a Button Collection” and consisted of packs of nine interesting buttons mailed with useful advice for beginning collectors.
An article in the magazine Just Buttons addressed the question, “Why do people collect buttons?” The answer was that they’ve been bitten by the button bug, which is a germ that has produced a mild form of disease called button fever. They become immune to other activities. Their activity gives them energy to prowl in out-of-the-way places and for ransacking attics. They also have become immune to ordinary ailments and are able to leave a sick bed to attend an auction in the worst weather, fatal to any ordinary person. They work long hours without tiring and develop what is known as an iron constitution. Life insurance companies should consider them excellent risks!
— by Ellaraine Lockie, author of “All Because of a Button: Folklore, Fact and Fiction,”
November 2000, by St. Johann Press, 201-387-1529.
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