BUTTON COLLECTING - A Lifetime Voyage of Discovery

by M. W. Speights, Editor National Button Bulletin (and a serious collector)

As seen in Antiques & Art Around Florida, Summer/Fall 1998

Photo courtesy of Tender Buttons, New York City. All other photos courtesy of the author.

In the past decade, membership in the exciting hobby of button collecting has tripled, for this is a quest of the unexpected in the highly varied world of buttons.

Most people are first attracted to buttons by their surprising beauty. From the wonderful paintings on ivory under glass of the 18th Century, to the finely executed and colorful enamels, to the great brass picture buttons of the 19th Century, and even to the 20th Century additions of fine porcelains, the whimsical Bakelite realistics, and some really innovative work with glass and plastics - there is something to please the eye of anyone. Who could resist the charming designs of Kate Greenaway or of the depictions of children’s stories, mythology, animal life of all kinds, or beautiful flowers in a wide variety of materials?

If you love history, the buttons of the past 300 years mirror the great people and events of many eras. Reflecting our own history, we have the sought-after and pricey George Washington Inaugural buttons which were sold as souvenirs for the second inauguration of Washington in 1789. The French Revolution of the same period is well documented in buttons, as are the fashion plates of the day known as Fops. Victorian buttons reflect the fashions of that era, which is known as the heyday of button manufacture. With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, mass production was possible and even though this ended the great period of handwork, where artisans were considered next to royalty, the people who before could not afford to wear beautiful buttons came to the fore. Even then, button manufacturers were proud of their work and built-in obsolescence was unknown.

George Washington Inaugual Button, Hot Air Balloon Button, etc

(1) The most sought-after button in America - a George Washington Inaugural button from 1789. This gilded copper shows an eagle with sunburst above. The legend reads “March The Fourth 1789 Memorable Era”.

(2) Up, up and away! This large steel cup has a pearl background and a brass escutcheon of a hot air balloon, embellished with cut steels.

(3) A fantastic whimsy is expressed in this under glass button of Schlaraffenland, a German word which means a utopic paradise...a land of milk and honey... where all impossible things are possible.

(4) A beautiful basse-taille enamel in the manner of Mucha.

If your interest is in art, buttons are a kaleidoscope of nearly all the great periods and styles of art - from baroque to roccoco to art nouveau to art deco - with many modern periods thrown in.

If you love jewelry, buttons of the 17th and 18th Centuries and the Victorian period sparkle. Indeed, buttons were a form of jewelry. Can you picture a gentleman at Versailles resplendent in his velvet or silk knee britches and waistcoat decorated with bright steel or pearl buttons catching the light of the candles? A cartoon of the day shows the ladies swooning at such a glorious sight. These buttons are definitely of museum quality.

If you are a collector of militaria, buttons are an important part of history. The manufacture of military buttons has been thoroughly researched and excellent records are available for time of use.

If you have another hobby - say collecting glass - you will find buttons to match your hobby. If you collect paperweights, a great selection of miniature paperweight buttons is available. If you collect art miniatures, the painting under glass found in buttons is a match for your treasures. Many stamp collectors have found buttons to pair with their stamps. Coin collectors can often find old coins which have been made into buttons. Most anything you can find in the world of antiques has been duplicated on buttons.

Button of the French Revolution, turned handerchief corner button, ship of Arita porcelain button

(1) A button of the French Revolution - a reverse painting under glass over mica of the storming of the Bastille.

(2) The eagerly sought-after turned handkerchief corner button with a wallpaper background and an escutcheon of a boy in a boat in high relief.

(3) Come sail with us in this beautiful Twentieth Century ship of Arita porcelain.

Buttons come in such a variety of materials and subjects that it would be impossible to name them all. Here it can be said that materials go from A for aluminum to Z for zinc - and that includes such odd materials as bread dough, butterfly wings, chicken skin, hair and wax. Subjects cover just about anything imaginable and it would be easier to name the subjects not covered than to list those covered. This is a nearly perfect hobby, inasmuchas it represents examples of just about all materials and subjects man has chosen to collect.

So if you choose button collecting as your main hobby or as a "go-with" hobby, there are thousands of options from which to choose.

If I sound evangelical, I hope I can share some of my zeal with you. As a button collector, I have had more delightful adventures, enjoyed more discoveries of the unexpected, made more friends, and had 28 years of pure joy from a hobby that has taken me all over the world.

What does the hobby have to offer? For the past 60 years there have been national, state and local organizations established for the purpose of having a forum for collectors to share information and buttons.

If you would like a lifetime voyage of adventurous discovery of beauty, history, art and fine craftsmanship, why not set sail with us on the great ship of buttons. Take a good look at buttons for the first time. It is a new frontier of challenge and hope. It will also become a magnificent obsession in a treasure hunt for the rest of your life.

If interested in more information or joining the National Button Society, contact Miss Lois Pool, Secretary, National Button Society, 2733 Juno Place, Akron, Ohio 44333-4137.

There are many books available on buttons. In the last sixty years, much research has been done and many books have been written on the subject of buttons. Membership in the National Button Society will entitle you to five magazines each year, withcolor supplements. Florida has one of the great groups for collectors. They meet each January in a different part of the state and attract collectors and dealers from many states.

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