Button collecting one of hobby’s oldest pursuits


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An 18th century painting on ivory under glass, rimmed in copper with tin back and metal loop shank. A highly desirable button, the floral design is not common for the period. Photos courtesy Janel J. Smith

Interest in buttons, as historic artifacts and pieces of artwork, gained nationwide attention in the 1930s. Collecting buttons soon became the number one hobby among women and No. 3 overall (after coins and stamps). Although times were hard and money scarce, many people still seemed to have boxes of buttons in attics.

In 1938 a housewife by the name of Gertrude Howell Patterson was a guest on the radio show “Hobby Lobby.” Her discussion of her hobby of button collecting helped trigger enormous interest. In 1939 the National Button Society was formed after being among featured displays in a “Hobbies” magazine issue in 1938. Published in Chicago, “Hobbies,” a magazine for collectors, devoted a special department to the 1940s button craze.

The magazine routinely featured articles and ads for the button collector. Hobbyists were already forming social networks in their communities. Patterson retained center stage as a writer for the magazine. Other guest writers included Lillian Albert and Dorothy Foster Brown – both well-recognized experts in the hobby even today, many years after their passing. By 1940 the national society was publishing a newsletter and holding annual meetings as it still does today.

The May 1941 issue of “The Family Circle” magazine featured buttons on its cover and a lengthy article by Stewart Robertson about the history of buttons and the newly popular hobby. Illustrations include photos of 17th and 18th century buttons from the (then) Cooper Union Museum of New York.

A 1945 issue of “Life” magazine featured the victorious General Douglas MacArthur on its cover and a story of button collections inside. The hobby attracted generations of women who had grown up with buttons used as a significant fashion accessory from the late 1800s through the 1920s. Even as late as the 1940s and early 1950s when fabric was rationed in Europe, the buttons adorning a dress made a fashion statement. The avant-garde designer, Elsa Schiaparelli, was a leader emblazoning her designs with large fanciful buttons in newly developed plastics among other common materials. Collectors of the day were well aware of the fashion trends.

The common question for the hobby newcomer is “how old are buttons?” While anthropologists are confident that buttons existed in Egypt 4,500 years ago, and it is likely that the first buttons could have been a caveman’s affectation of a carved stone, bone or shell, modern man’s use of buttons traces to late 12th and early 13th century Europe where they appeared as adornments on nobility clothing of the time. It was the 14th century King Francis I of France that outshone everyone by wearing 13,600 golden disks on one court costume. Yes, buttons were decoration even more than utility.

Soon buttons were being made of all sorts of materials; but precious metals and jewels remained the pride of the royal courts.

By the 18th century buttons featured designs by highly skilled artists and were not only worn by nobility, but had gained general popularity. Paintings on ivory, intricate enamel designs, even Wedgwood mounted in Boulton steel were in vogue. Large buttons, such as those made from silver coin or finely cut steel bits riveted to a steel-base, emblazoned men’s waistcoats, thus making a brilliant impression.

On the American continent buttons were first manufactured in New England in 1707 followed by production in Philadelphia and New York. Records of the 1774 Provincial Congress of Massachusetts advocate the use of papier-mâché buttons in order to reduce English imports. But the French remained the fashion trend-setters with Britain not far behind. Among the common folk in the U.S. it was pewter, horn, and bone that were principally used in button manufacture in the late 18th and early 19th century.

With the discovery of abundant fresh-water mussels and clams in Midwestern rivers, there arose an industry of carved shell buttons in the mid and late 19th century. Button factories lined the Mississippi from Minnesota to Missouri – production that is now long-gone.

Today’s button collectors enjoy the historical aspect of buttons, as well as their portrayal of images popular to their times. One can find buttons made of any one of dozens of materials. The joy for the collector is the “hunt” for the rare and illusive button.

There also is the amusement of button-lore, such as the story that Prussia’s Frederick the Great prompted the installation of buttons on the coat sleeves of soldiers’ uniforms to discourage them from wiping their noses on the sleeves. Then there is the tale that a woman should not thread a button chain of more than 999 buttons or she will die a spinster. These stories and more can be found in the button books appreciated by collectors.

The Oregon State Button Society (www.oregonbuttonsociety.org) was formed in 1948 and is affiliated with the National Button Society (NBS, www.nationalbuttonsociety.org). Its members are dedicated to the collection, study and preservation of buttons. The national society has more than 3,000 members with many more collectors affiliated with local and regional button groups.

The Oregon State Button Society, the Western Regional Button Association (www.wrba.us), and the National Button Society each publishes quarterly newsletters that include educational articles and photographs on the subject of buttons. Membership in these societies automatically includes the newsletters, notification of upcoming events, and access to other resources. ?

Janel J. Smith is a 20-year veteran button collector from Bend, Oregon. Janel’s collection was launched with a box of buttons collected by her great, great aunts who were collectors in the late 1930s and early 1940s.


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More Images:

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A classical art nouveau floral design this carved and etched shell button dates to the 1890s. Buttons in this style were gold leafed and sometimes gold and silver leafed.
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Picture buttons were popular on women's dresses in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Pictured here is an elephant standing on a ball. The molded and tinted brass face design is crimped around the sides, with a black lacquered metal back plate.
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Pictured here is the Greek god of war, Ares. The design is printed on porcelain and set in metal. It likely dates to the 1840s.
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The goddess Athena is pictured here adoring her son, Cupid, who stands atop a pedestal - a special message to mothers. This is an 18th century button made of gold-colored pressed paper design set under glass.
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In the 18th century Josiah Wedgwood experimented with clays in search of porcelain to compete with that from Japan and China. Instead he created jasperware. This Wedgwood escutcheon is set in Matthew Boulton's steel setting.
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French and German artists painted portraits on porcelain. Often the images depict women of the era. This button includes faceted yellow and blue tinted steel bits riveted to frame the portrait -- all set in a gilt steel cup.
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The use of butterfly wings was not common in antique buttons. This modern aluminum button uses the technique to create the image of an island paradise, complete with golden moon reflecting on water behind a palm tree.

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