Volume VIII, No. 3, Spring 1981
by Carmen Broyles and Ellen Massey
Photography by Tracy Waterman, Gina Jennings and Kathy Long
When I was a child, I used to play button, button, who's got the button? At that time I thought I had the answer to that question when I guessed the correct hand which held the button. But now I know I was wrong. On a visit with Elsie Palmer, I learned that she and her friends in a button club and thousands of others like them have the button and hundreds and hundreds more.
The minute I stepped into Mrs. Palmer's living room and saw the walls lined with beautifully arranged displays of buttons brought by the ladies of her button club, I was reminded of the childish game. I also realized I have been wrong all these years in thinking the only use for a button was to hold my clothes together. While looking at all the buttons mounted on cards scattered around the house and displayed on all the walls, I realized how serious button collecting can be to dedicated collectors.
I had expected to visit with Mrs. Palmer and a couple of her friends about odds and ends of buttons they had collected over the years in boxes or jars because the buttons were pretty, like a little boy's collection of rocks, or because they could be used again like a mechanic's assortment of nuts and bolts. Instead I was introduced to eleven enthusiastic ladies anxious to talk to us about their beautiful, historical and valuable displays of buttons which they treated as if they were precious jewelry, which in essence, some of them were. In our first few minutes their enthusiasm rubbed off on us so that we were in danger of being bitten by the button bug.
After the initial enthusiasm subsided a bit, Mrs. Palmer and Elizabeth Prall began telling us the history, pleasures and techniques of button collecting as the other ladies added their experiences and knowledge. Our crash course begun that day expanded over the succeeding weeks as several ladies gave us more information.
Far from having a jar of buttons hidden in a drawer, these ladies were serious collectors dedicated to finding and preserving still more buttons for their collections. But there are thousands of people that collect buttons without even knowing it, as they cut and save them from old clothing that is worn out.
Many men collect buttons like military buttons, campaign or political buttons, railroad buttons, sports or club buttons, and buttons pertaining to ships, space and police.
Some people want only the rare beautiful buttons, such as eighteenth century Wedgewoods. Others collect one specific kind of buttons, like the Goodyear hard rubber buttons which were usually black and were made in many designs including animals, flowers, heads and crosses. These "true American buttons" were made in the United States as early as 1851. Or people may collect clear and colored glass buttons because of their beauty. Some specialize in black glass buttons, the all-time favorite, which were molded into many sizes and shapes. Very few of these are manufactured anymore. There are collectors who look only for buttons made of some certain material such as ivory, wood, brass, silver or china, and some want only the interesting story buttons. Some prefer buttons from the Orient. Many fall for the beautiful pearl buttons. Mrs. Palmer said, "Ail have a certain charm and fascination that is hard to resist once you are bit by the button bug."
In many homes, especially in earlier days where nothing was thrown out, women saved every button, not so much for their esthetic appeal or as a hobby, but as an economic necessity to use again on another garment. The button box was as common an item among the sewing materials as was thread. Clara Welch said, "You could buy all the glass buttons you wanted for a dime or twenty-five cents a card. Now you pay anywhere from forty-five to sixty-five cents a button!" But when buttons were ten cents a card, cotton fabric was also ten cents a yard, making the buttons cost about as much as the fabric to make a dress or shirt.
Button collecting as a hobby was first started on a large scale basis by Gertrude Patterson in 1937. Mrs. Patterson appeared on a nationwide radio program and talked on the hobby of button collecting. Listeners, who had thought of buttons as nothing more than a necessity to hold clothing together, became interested and the hobby started all over the country. Very few clubs were in existence then, but soon local and state groups were organized and in 1938 the National Button Society was formed. Now there are 2,000 national members, but there are many more who do not belong to the National Society. Gertrude Patterson is known as the "first lady of buttons."
The ladies we talked with belong to the Springfield Buttonieres which meets once a month and is one of four clubs in Missouri. Most of the ladies belong to the state and national button societies as well.
We asked several of the ladies how they got started collecting buttons. There were many reasons--liking a certain button, just knowing someone who was a collector or an illness which prevented more active work.
"The first thing that I can remember that really caused me to start collecting buttons was my mother," said Elsie Palmer. "I lost my mother and in a little box of buttons she had saved was an overall button that had the Shepherd of the Hills on it. It had the old shepherd and his dogs and the sheep and then the hills in the background. I had never seen a button like that, and to this day I've not seen another one at either state or national.
"That got me interested in buttons, and at that time I wasn't very well. I had a heart condition develop, and I had to give up a lot of things that I had been interested in.
"Before I ever knew of a button society, I began gathering buttons because I liked them. I went to Hollister to an antique shop, and I was looking for and buying buttons just for the joy of it. The woman told me there had been some women from the Springfield Buttonieres at her shop. She told them about me, and I got an invitation to go to Springfield to the Buttonieres. I didn't even know there was a state, national or local society of button collectors. I went and I enjoyed the meeting so much, and they invited me to join them. It wasn't very long until I joined the state society and then national. First I collected Good-years because they had the name and date on the back, and I knew I couldn't go wrong. Then I collected overall buttons because they weren't as expensive. From that I got so immersed, I just wanted all of them.
"I promised my husband not to spend my savings to buy buttons, so I tried to earn the money by raising and selling strawberries and vegetables. Many of my friends that bought from me gave me buttons. I was so thankful for them I made trays of them with the friend's name by the button, and I will never part with those buttons or the ones my own family have given to me. During this time I built up my heart by doing these things to be able to buy my buttons. I preferred the valuable rare buttons. I'd rather have one rare button than a thousand common ones."
"I had a sister that started me," Elizabeth Prall said. "She had been collecting for several years and I helped. In 1942 when I became ill, she said, 'I'm going to bring some of my things down and start you on the button hobby.' So she brought them down and I just played around. I didn't know anything about them, how to classify them or anything. Later, I bought her collection.
"My husband died in 1963 and my life had changed, so I took up the hobby and joined national. They asked me to take the job as secretary. I was for eight years. I resigned in 1976. I've held different offices and I'm still doing it."
Ruth Davis said she started accumulating buttons in 1909 but didn't start actually collecting until quite recently. "I had a button on a coat that I liked. In the catalog it's called the Ship of Devilness. It was a ship and it had all kinds of pirates on it. It took my fancy and I kept it. I still have it. Lately I got interested in the club."
Charlotte Sheppard started out just accumulating buttons, also, and after about twenty years she realized she was actually collecting for numbers. "I got to looking at the buttons and I realized they were too precious just to leave in a jar to be crushed or tarnished. So, I started thinking of sorting them out and putting those to one side to display them I learned about a lady up at Billings, Clara Welch. I went to her house and she showed me all her beautiful buttons and invited me to the Springfield Buttonieres. The next month when they met, I went up there, and I really began to get into collecting. I joined state and national. I just really got hooked on buttons. I like the glass buttons best.
"So many times you'll read about a button in one of the various magazines and the next place you go, there'll be that button. That's what makes it so interesting. There's so many different kinds of buttons. It's just a great hobby."
Nellie Hall has collected some very nice trays. Among her collection are trays she brought to show us--scrimshaw ivory, gem stones, clear, colored and black glass.
Some button collectors haven't been at it as long as these ladies. Joy Jones said, "I'm a relatively new button collector. I guess I've been at it about eight years. I've enjoyed it an awful lot. Pauline Kennedy got me started by sending me a card with a button on it. You get fascinated by it. I was very interested in the historical value of the buttons. I hadn't realized history could be traced so very accurately by the study of buttons, but it certainly can."
Once bitten by the button bug, the prospective collector needs to learn all she can about buttons. Fundamentally a button is a knob or disk that is attached to a garment to close or fasten it by passing through a loop or slit. Buttons can be purely functional, can be only decorative or both. Since a true button has some means of fastening it to the fabric, button collectors pay special attention to the two ways--sew-through and shank.
Faye Selby said, "The sew-throughs are buttons with one, two, three, four or five holes used to sew the button to the fabric. The one hole is called a whistle button with one hole showing on the top and two holes underneath. All the others show the same number of holes on both top and underside. The extra holes are to add strength and durability.
"There are more than fifty different styles of shanks. A shank is attached to the underside of a button to sew it to the fabric. A few styles are self, loop, pin, nail head, alpha, omega, rosette, pigtail, swirl and poppler."
The introduction of the American poppler shank from the 1870s to 1917 mark the borderline between antique and modern buttons. Buttons before 1918 are considered antique. Mrs. Selby continued, "The poppler shank was much different from other shanks usually made of wire or self material. The shank was made by stamping out a piece of flat metal the shape of a key with a round hole stamped out for sewing, and the key part is molded in the glass. This shank was used in black and colored glass with bits of colored glass and metalic material added."
Buttons have been made of almost any material imaginable--animal, vegetable and mineral natural materials and modern plastics and compositions.
From animals they are made of bone, ivory from elephant and walrus tusks, cattle, sheep and deer horn, tortoise shell, leather, pearl from the shells of many marine animals, coral, and skins of snakes, lizards and alligators.
Buttons from vegetable products include celluloid, fabrics of all kinds with cotton being the best known, grass straw and fibers such as bamboo, vegetable ivory from the nuts of the vegetable ivory palms in South America and Africa, paper, wood from all kinds of trees, cork, rubber and amber and jet which were originally of plant origin.
From the mineral kingdom there are all kinds of buttons made of gem stones, both precious and semiprecious amethyst, sapphire, ruby, opal, turquoise, emerald, jade, diamond. There are buttons of many metals--gold, silver, copper, brass, pewter. Glass is another mineral-based button material.
After reading up on buttons or finding out information in other ways, the would-be collector must then find the buttons. Mrs. Shepherd said, "One of the places to find them is in Grandma's button box and at aunts and sisters. What you need to have is a friend with a button box that isn't a collector. You can also find them at the markets and garage sales."
There are button dealers that deal in nothing but antique and modern buttons. There are button shows where these dealers set up their wares, and collectors can purchase the buttons they don't have in their own collections. The value of the button is up to the person. If she needed a certain button bad enough, she may give her right arm for it.
After collecting the buttons, there are several steps to go through before they can be mounted on cards and displayed. The first thing to do is sort buttons into various groups or classes. As the collector groups the buttons, she decides of the many categories how she will display the buttons. One such group consists of materials they are made of, such as fabric, metal, glass, pearl, horn, bone, rubber, wood and composition. There are other ways to group buttons. They can be classed by the subject matter of the decoration on the button, such as animal and plant life, buildings and scenes, marine scenes, mythological, oriental or religious topics, people and stories. For example, in animal life a collector might try to get a button with a picture of as many different animals as possible on the card and not have duplicates, or she might choose one animal and try to get as many pictures on buttons as possible.
If interested in the story buttons, those that have pictures to illustrate a story, such as Romeo and Juliet, Joan of Arc, Robinson Crusoe and the fairy tales, the collector may choose a category such as Biblical stories. A copy of the National Button Society Bulletin, Collect er's Encyclopedia or Button Parade is helpful in sorting the buttons.
Those planning to exhibit buttons must also learn the different divisions, such as old and antique buttons, modern buttons, uniform buttons from military, police, schools or societies, specialties or those which are not true buttons such as bridal rosettes and cuff buttons. There are also divisions for collectors who are shut-ins and juniors.
After the collector decides what class of button it is and what it is made from, she needs to determine what size it is. There are four sizes--large, medium, small and diminutive. Anything over 1 1/4 inch is a large button. If the button is larger than 3/4ths inch but smaller than 1 1/4 inch, it is medium. A small button is less than 3/4th but larger than 3/8th inch. Any button smaller than 3/8th is diminutive.
A helpful gauge to determine the size is a metal card called a button measure which has circles of the three measurements, 3/8, 3/4 and 1 1/4 inch. The button is laid in the circle to determine its size.
After sizing, cleaning follows. The collector rubs off any dirt possible with a pencil eraser. A piece of soft steel wool removes tarnish. Glass or china are washed in warm water. An old toothbrush is useful to get into the little creases. Mrs. Palmer said it is better to leave fabric buttons alone. "Most old fabric has become somewhat rotten and will tear or rip very easily and will go to shreds if you try to clean them. The least rub will ruin some of the real old ones. Washing them will ruin them also if they are old."
The final step is mounting the buttons on a card. These specially prepared cards can be purchased from Mrs. Ruth E. Lysen, 5024 13th Avenue South, Minneapolis, Minnesota 55417. The cards usually are already designed with places to put the buttons. The cards make an attractive way of displaying the buttons as well as protecting them. They also encourage more collecting for each collector wants to fill in all the empty places.
To mount the buttons on the cards, the collector punches a small hole in the card, inserts the shank, and then fastens the button on the back of the card by running a small piece of wire or pipe cleaner through the shank. For the buttons that are sew-through, she punches holes to match the holes in the buttons. She puts the wire from the bottom up through a hole and over and down the other hole and twists the wires together underneath.
When the card is filled with buttons, it is ready to display. Some collectors slip the card into slots in specially prepared wooden button trays which are especially designed to fit into show racks at button conventions. These trays have glass covers to completely protect the buttons from dust and friction. A more inexpensive protection is a vinyl or plastic case into which one can slip a card of buttons.
A collector can enjoy her hobby alone with books to help explain and identify the buttons, but most collectors agree that to get the most from their hobby they need to join a group of collectors as these ladies have done. Charlotte Shepherd said, "You meet all these different kinds of people and enjoy your companionship with them."
Collecting buttons is collecting history. The kinds of materials used, the popularity of different designs, the colors and fastenings all vary with the workmanship, styles and demands of the time, telling us about the people.
Queen Victoria wore jet buttons on her black dresses all the time after Prince Albert's death in 1861. Other people wished to follow her style, but since there were very few jet buttons and they were expensive, manufacturers made buttons of black glass.
Calico buttons had designs on them like the fabric. They date from the late 1800s through the early 1900s.
For a while glass buttons were very cheap. After World War II a group of Germans took an old factory and started making very reasonably priced glass buttons which they sent to America. Times changed, and the families went to work at industries so that button making has closed down. Very few glass buttons are being made for sale in the United States now. West Germany makes and imports a few.
Not only do the buttons represent history, but the use of buttons themselves has an interesting history. Buttons have been used for centuries as is evidenced by fastenings pictured on paintings and carvings. No one knows when they were first used, but the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Persians used them 4,000 years ago. They were of gold, glass, bone or earthenware, probably used for ornaments. The Greeks used them as fasteners on shoulders for their tunics. In the Middle Ages knights used them to close the garments beneath the armor.
In the thirteenth century buttons came into prominence in Europe, and there were even laws passed limiting their use for the lower classes. Since most buttons were made of precious metals or ivory, only the aristocracy used them. It was scandalous for people of low degree to wear buttons, even imitations of the more expensive ones.
In 1290 Queen Elinor, wife of Edward I of England, attended her sister's wedding in a dress trimmed with 636 silver buttons. This dress must have been quite heavy, for that many even quite small buttons would have been a heavy load to carry. A quarter of a century later a lady's cloak might have had as many as fifty buttons on it while her husband's doublet and cloak sported eighty or more.
Henry III made funeral buttons stylish following the death of his mistress. In his records there is a note of a set of eighteen dozen large silver buttons in the form of a death's head.
Though all countries have manufactured buttons, most buttons available to collectors are from England and France. Since there are few buttons existing dating before the eighteenth century, the bulk of buttons for collecting are from the nineteenth century.
The first American buttons were imported from England and were mainly simple in design and utilitarian. Americans began making metal buttons, silver, brass and pewter, toward the end of the eighteenth century.
Over the centuries the manufacturing and use of buttons has gone through quite an evolution. The buttons before the nineteenth century were miniature art works. During the nineteenth century buttons became more work of craft than art and women competed with men in using buttons.
In the twentieth century buttons lost the distinction they once had. Invisible fasteners, hooks and eyes and zippers, obviated the functional need for buttons. Styles became standardized for men, and the tailored look came to women's clothing. No longer art, buttons lost their esthetic beauty and feel of quality.
We left Mrs. Palmer's house with ears buzzing with all the talking, heads swimming with the information and cameras loaded with shots of the ladies and their buttons. Their enthusiasm rubbed off on us, for we immediately began to be interested in. the boxes of buttons our mothers and grandmothers had. We tried our new-found skill at determining if the button is glass by tapping it on our teeth. Mrs. Prall had explained, "If it's not glass, it has a dull sound."
We discovered that the hobby of collecting buttons is fairly new and relatively unexplored. We looked at buttons with an eye for quality and beauty. We turned them over to look for any identifying marks on the back and looked at the construction of the shank. Our own excitement mounted as we began looking through our button boxes and found a story button, some black glass buttons and a whole set of tarnished miniature brass buttons of unknown origin.
Even the pretty modern buttons have an appeal. No one can keep his hands out of a box of buttons, and childlike, we ran the buttons through our fingers to sort out the various sizes and colors and to enjoy the pleasing feel of the shapes and textures of the buttons. Besides the fascination and esthetic satisfaction they receive, button collectors feel they are doing a historical and artistic service. "We are saving tiny miniatures of fine art--the painting, carving, enameling and engraving--for future generations to enjoy," Mrs. Palmer said. "The hobby is educationally stimulating and helps us forget the stress of the times we are living in."
One doesn't have to be a collector of rare or valuable buttons to enjoy working with them. Because of their textures, shapes, colors and many sizes, they lend themselves to picture making. Buttons arranged to create designs or to represent something present a new media to work with, creating an unusual three-dimensional design which catches the light as well as everyone's admiration. All kinds of buttons can be arranged to make a picture. Artistic people can design their own picture and find and fill in buttons for the effect they want. Or one can design a picture based on the buttons available. We made a button picture (p. 11) of a flower arrangement with a pattern for the pot and what buttons we had. It was a very satisfying project to do and was not difficult.
To make a button picture of a flower arrangement you will need:
3/4 yard of background material
canvas stretchers 22 by 30 inches
staples to fasten material to stretcher
500 to 600 assorted buttons of all sizes and colors
sheet of paper 22 by 30 inches
heavy sewing thread of various colors
pencil and tailor's chalk
The first thing to decide is the background fabric on which to sew the buttons. Belgian linen which can be purchased in art stores is very good, but rather expensive. Any durable material that could be stretched would work, such as linens and velveteen. We used canvas for oil painting. When selecting the material, have in mind the background color that will show and enhance all the colors of buttons, including the white and clear glass ones. A natural unbleached linen color is effective. One advantage of the canvas is that it can be painted the desired background color.
Stretch the fabric over the canvas stretchers and staple securely to the back.
Next, make the pattern. Cut out a piece of paper in an oval form 28 by 21 inches. Lay it on the stretched material and mark the oval shape lightly. Tailor's chalk works well.
Then cut a pattern for the flower pot or basket. Ours was 8 inches high, 9 inches across the top and 7 inches at the bottom. Taper in the pot at the bottom and add borders as you like. Lay the bottom of the pot pattern on the picture about 2 1/2 inches from the bottom oval marks. Be sure to center it. As you did before, mark the outline of the pot lightly and remove the pattern.
There can be no specific pattern for the flowers because that depends on the available buttons. Each picture will be different just as every real bouquet is different. In order to see what arrangements are pleasing, you will need to lay down all the buttons. Since you can't lay them on the picture as they would all have to be removed when sewing them on, make a total pattern of your picture before you begin. Cut a piece of paper 22 by 30 inches, the size of the picture. Mark the oval and pot patterns on it in pencil. Lay the buttons on the paper until you get the most desired arrangement. Put buttons on the oval to make the frame. Then draw around each button in place and label. This will give a pattern of how the buttons will go if you cannot leave the buttons on the paper until each is sewn down to the picture.
The next step is to sew the buttons one by one onto the fabric. It is helpful to work with only one small unit of buttons at a time. Begin with the pot, remove the bottom row of buttons from the paper and place them in exactly the same place on the picture. Put a light mark with the pencil or chalk where the shank is, or if it is a sew-through button, mark through all the holes in the button with a pencil
Using heavy thread that is doubled, bring the needle up through the underside of the fabric and sew through each button once. If it is a sew-through button, match the thread color. Without fastening the thread, go to the next button and the next until the thread runs out. Fasten the thread on the back of the picture by tying securely. The back will look like the back of a card of buttons you buy.
After the buttons forming the pot are sewn on, do the individual flowers beginning with those close to the pot. To be sure the finished picture is exactly as the pattern, either measure for each flower from the pattern, or if the buttons are not on the pattern, lay the pattern on the picture to make the markings.
When all the buttons are sewn on, protect the threads on the back from coming loose by spreading white liquid glue all over the back. Smooth it out with a brush and let dry.
Copyright © 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.