A couple of weeks ago, while browsing through Flickr, I came across Joan's photostream, where I got attracted by a very nice picture she made of a stunning button collection. I added it promptly to my favorites so I wouldn't loose track of it.
During the following days an idea slowly took shape in my head. As I'm always attracted to the arrangements, the collector's enthousiasm and the often amazing facts, stories and detailed knowledge behind a collection, I thought: Why not create some kind of "column" here on Caught Crafting? A space where different, craft related collections are presented, with their owners telling something about them?
As soon as that idea took shape I immediately thought of Joan, and that promising peek into her button collection which she had given with her picture. She proved to be a very nice lady and agreed to be interviewed about her collection. So here we are with the first craft collection post. All pictures are taken by Joan, and you can find more of her here.
I was born in Colorado, U.S., but grew up overseas (Mexico, Puerto Rico, Japan & HK) because of my father’s business. I came back to the U.S. for college and have been here in Northern California ever since. I’m the business manager for a scenery company that builds sets for tv commercials and rents props for movies. I’ve always loved crafts, but am not very good at them because I get too impatient! However, I LOVE collecting craft supplies (among many other things)… watercolor sets, buttons, fabric, ink, etc. They calm me after stressful days, and the “possibilities” make me happy.
How and when did you start collecting buttons?
About 20 years ago my sister gave me a jar of buttons she’d collected at antique stores and garage sales… just normal “every day” buttons like your grandmother probably kept in a tin for mending.
A few months later I was telling her how much I enjoyed spilling them out on the table and sorting them, and she mentioned she’d heard there were button clubs. I laughed, thinking it was so silly… yes, they’re fun, but people are so obsessed they have CLUBS? I thought she must be joking, so I looked it up on the internet. What I discovered was truly eye-opening: yes, there ARE button clubs, but the buttons aren’t your normal, every day ones… they’re truly miniature works of art!
Once I realized what a button could be, I looked for them everywhere… flea markets, antique stores, eBay. For such a small utilitarian item, it’s amazing how fond people are of buttons. So familiar and comforting. But you begin to look at them a whole different way when you learn the history… at one time, buttons were only worn by the very rich and made from real jewels and precious metals, or were miniature hand-painted portraits. In Victorian England, after Prince Albert died and the whole country was in mourning, ladies still managed to show some “flash” on their black clothing by wearing intricately carved jet (black glass) buttons.
The romantic story behind the small metal and velvet “perfume buttons”, is that a woman would dab perfume on it, then sew it under the uniform collar of her beloved before he went to war, so her scent would always be with him. There are old uniform buttons that have a secret compartment that hid a compass. And “smuggler’s buttons” that have hollow centers in which to carry things like microfilm or drugs… who would think to look inside a little button?!
Velvet Perfume Buttons and brass Samurai warrior button. Photos by Joan.
Velvet Perfume Buttons and brass Samurai warrior button. Photos by Joan.
What are all the different materials the buttons of your collection are made of?
Buttons are made of every material imaginable… silver, porcelain, papier mache, shell, fabric, rubber, coconut, plastic, brass, wood, stone, glass, you name it. Personally, my favorites are picture buttons, perfume buttons, Satsuma, rhinestone and bakelite. Prices can range from 25 cents to hundreds of dollars, depending on age, quality and rarity. Most, however, are in the $5 to $50 range. Many times, you can find a real treasure in an old box of “everyday” buttons at a garage sale, so always look carefully (and don’t let the seller see you jumping up and down with excitement before you agree on a price!)! Read all you can about identifying old buttons so you’ll be able to recognize a real treasure when you come across one.
Approximately how many buttons do you think you have these days and which time frame and geography do they span?
I probably have about 750 vintage/antique buttons, and my collection is quite small compared to most collectors! They’re mostly European, with a few from Japan and India, and are from the 1800’s through the1940’s. Not all my collectible buttons are old though… I also collect new “realistic” buttons depicting cartoon characters, and a few modern studio buttons that are made specifically for collectors.
Do you have a specific way of organizing them?
In my living room, I have a small tabletop display cabinet with a glass top so you can get a glimpse of the treasures inside… it’s a magnet for guests! Each section has a different type of button, but the cabinet is full, so I keep the rest in an old wooden box that was a store display for spools of thread.
My “everyday” buttons are in Bonne Maman jam jars, sorted by color, so they look like a rainbow on the shelf.
Are there any special buttons you’d love to have (more of) in your collection? A favorite style, material or time period maybe?
Unfortunately, I have very expensive tastes, so I don’t have as many of my favorite buttons as I’d like! Silver art nouveau, old Satsuma, buttons with secret compartments… but every button I have is loved and treasured, whether it was made 100 years ago or last week.
Do you have a special story around one/a set of button(s) in your collection? For instance on how you found them or why you are especially attached to them?
After three years of looking for a house, I was very frustrated and ready to give up my dream. One night I was looking through my buttons to relax, and realized I had a lot of picture buttons depicting houses, cottages and castles. I framed a dozen of them in a shadow box as my “wish”. A week later, I found my house and got it without any problems. A few years ago a friend in France was also having trouble finding a house, so I sent her one of my “wish” buttons, and she too, found her dream house soon after and passed the button along to a friend in England who was looking for a home.
I’m also fond of the very first vintage buttons I ever found. There was a little antique shop I loved visiting, and one day, hidden in a corner, I noticed a large dusty bowl full of buttons. I asked if I could go through them, and sat on the floor for 2 hours, happily looking for little treasures. I found a red paperweight button, 3 beautiful rhinestone ones, a small glass oval with an iridescent piece of blue butterfly wing and a bakelite one shaped like a clothes pin. When I took them to the cashier, she let me have them all for $1!!
I also visited a button museum in Tokyo years ago… my friend and I were the only ones there, so the gentleman gave us a personal tour, and at the end, presented me with a set of Olympic uniform buttons his company had made for the Winter games. It was such a generous gift, and I treasure them.
On the photo: Satsuma and Arita are pottery buttons from Japan, dating from the 1800's to the 1950's (some are still made today, in very small quantities). The round buttons in the photo are Satsuma. All others are Arita. The man and woman on the left in the bottom row are 2 of the Immortal Gods, and the woman on the right is a character from Noh theatre.Do you want to share some tips on where to look for special, vintage buttons, and is there anything one should specifically pay attention to when buying?
Collectible buttons can be lurking anywhere, since most people don’t give them much thought. Garage sales, flea markets and your grandmother’s button box are great places to start. You’ll have to sort through a lot of “every day” buttons to find the unique vintage ones, but it’s worth the effort!! You can also find lots of buttons on eBay, or do a Google search for “vintage buttons” to find websites of collectors who also sell buttons. You may be surprised, but there are also button conventions. Hotel ballrooms filled with tables and tables of buttons… it’s overwhelming! Some button sellers will even mail you buttons “on approval” (usually you have to prove you belong to a club in order for them to do this)… you pick the ones you want, and send the rest back with a check.
If people want to use vintage buttons in their crafting, what are the do’s (if there are any) and don’ts?
Every collector will tell you that the first rule is, “Don’t harm the buttons”!! If you want to make a bracelet or other craft project with older buttons, please don’t use permanent glue or take the buttons apart (including cutting off the shank!)… try to make sure that in the future, the button can be taken out and still be intact. There are many ways to use buttons in your crafts that won’t harm the integrity of the button.
However, the most important thing is to store your buttons properly. Keeping them in a jar may look good, but this method is very destructive to old buttons… shell buttons can be chipped, metal buttons bent, and plastic buttons can disintegrate. Some plastic buttons (old and new) emit fumes that can corrode metal buttons, and moisture warp wooden ones, so make sure your buttons have air circulation and aren’t being crushed by heavier buttons. If you still want to keep buttons in jars, be sure the container is clean and completely dry (buttons too!), and only store buttons made of the same materials in each jar. Check them regularly and let them air out, and if you see any discoloration or notice a strange smell, take the buttons out immediately and isolate the ones that are causing the damage.
The best way to enjoy your button collection is to frame them in shadow boxes so you can see them every day. Collectors use thin plastic-covered “telephone wire” to attach the buttons to cardboard mats for framing. Remember that most old buttons have metal shanks which also need to be protected from corrosion so they don’t ruin your button. Using telephone wire helps protect them and is strong enough to hold your button safely.
Old store display cases or shallow drawers are also a great way to display your treasures.
Are there any web sites/books that offer more information for people who are interested to learn more?
There are many books about buttons, but most serious collectors consider “The Big Book of Buttons” by Elizabeth Hughes to be the most important. It’s an encyclopedia of every button style known to exist. Unfortunately, it’s out of print, and used copies can cost hundreds of dollars.
However, I think the most beautiful and informative book is “Buttons” by Diana Epstein and Millicent Safro. It tells the history of buttons and has absolutely gorgeous photographs. You won’t believe the array of buttons, and I guarantee after you read it, you’ll immediately want to run out and start looking for buttons!
Other good books are:
Antique and Collectible Buttons by Debra J. Wisniewski
Button Button: Identification and Price Guide by Peggy Ann Osborne
There also might be a button society in your area. Most button collectors are very happy to help new enthusiasts learn more, and will help you find the “little works of art” you’re interested in. The National Button Society in the U.S. has a website with lots of information and photos of buttons, with links to all the American societies (clubs), plus international ones, at https://www.nationalbuttonsociety.org/NBS_Websites.html
Button collecting can be overwhelming because there are so many different types and you can soon end up in the poor house!! Remember, the most important thing is to collect what you love, take care of them and just enjoy them!
Joan, thank you again for your time and effort! I surely loved reading your stories and answers and enjoyed looking at all these miniature works of art.
If any of you readers have an interesting craft material collection I'd be very happy to feature it in this column! Just drop me a mail at diana(at)caughtcrafting.com