Sew you've decided to collect buttons
A button collector explains the basics of taking up the hobby.
Button collecting is a wonderful hobby. I’ve been an avid collector of clothing buttons for well over a decade. My obsession with these tiny works of art started early and quite innocently, without the guidance of mentors, other collectors, clubs or societies. I just collected them as I found them because I loved them.
Separated by material, collectible shell buttons mounted on mat board
Photo by Janet White
Work card of silver buttons circa 1950-1970 from artist studios in Mexico, with notes as to backmarks on buttons
Photo by Janet White
Display card for assorted Bakelite buttons
Photo by Janet White
Artistic and organizational display card for china button types
Photo by Janet White
Strands of wire for use in mounting buttons
Photo by Janet White
Two button mounting techniques: on left a sew-through button is wired to a mat board and on right a button with a shank is held in place by a wire inserted through and twisted around the shank
Photo by Janet White
I plodded along in this clueless fashion until I stumbled upon an article — perhaps just as you are reading right now. The information was fuel to the fire and when I reached the end of the article I mailed in my first membership dues to the National Button Society! I have happily been a member of that organization since 1997. The society’s beautifully illustrated bulletins, published five times a year, and official classification booklet helped me to understand and appreciate my growing collection.
Prior to joining NBS, I stored my buttons just as I’d found them: in mason jars, boxes, and metal cookie tins. I took them out to look at them every once in a while, admiring their beauty, and then put them back on the shelf for another day. I discovered, however, through reading the NBS bulletins and the assistance of the knowledgeable people in a local button club that my collection would fare much better if I sorted and classified my buttons. Consequently, the many questions that puzzled me about my buttons began to be answered.
Today, I am very happy to say, my collection of these wonderful works of art is still growing and I continue to learn about them. My collection is no longer in jars and tins, but is out where it can be admired and enjoyed. To all collectors who may be overwhelmed by your newfound hobby, I offer the following bits of advice. I hope you will find something here that lights your way toward a better enjoyment of this fascinating hobby.
1. Before you do anything else, sort your buttons by materials. Your buttons are made of many different things. Some of those things don’t play well with others. Some types of plastics and celluloids, especially those from the early part of the 20th century, dislike metals. They can, in fact, deteriorate and cause other buttons stored with them to become “sick” and deteriorate. Before you know it, your lovely collection could become a rusty, foul-smelling mess. Take preventive action now and begin sorting your collection by materials. Put all your celluloids in one container and leave it open so they can “breathe.” Put all your glass buttons together in another container, the same for metal buttons, and so on, until you have your entire collection separated by materials. If you are unsure of the material of a particular button, excellent information is available in books and online to help you identify the materials. Your state or local area likely has a button club with seasoned collectors who would be happy to assist you. I recommend using the NBS classification book as your guide for labeling the materials, which is yours when you join the NBS. You can also find it online at nationalbuttonsociety.org.
2. Do what the pros do: Mount your buttons on mat boards. You’ll soon learn that button collectors like to display their buttons on sturdy pieces of mat board. Acid-free mat board can be found at many craft stores, and scrap pieces are often available inexpensively from frame shops. (For competition purposes, the boards must measure exactly 9 x 12 in., but that is not necessary if you’re simply looking for a good way to mount and store your collection.) You'll soon discover that buttons mounted and stored on mat boards (a.k.a. cards) are easier to keep track of and usually safe from harm. Glass buttons, for instance, are much less likely to chip when mounted and the entire card is stored in a plastic sleeve, than when stored loose. Another advantage to mounting your collection is that it becomes much easier to track. I recommend mounting your favorites first. The back of the card is an ideal spot to make any notes on prices or values or historical facts about particular buttons.
In order to mount a button properly, you must first poke a hole through the mounting card. I have heard of many ways to do this; everything from drilling through a stack of mat boards simultaneously to punching holes with that odd corncob holder in your kitchen junk drawer. I just use a good awl. You can find awls in hardware stores and at fabric stores. If your button has a wire loop shank, you’ll only need one hole. If your button is a sew-through type, you'll need to punch two holes close together. A word of caution here: Put something under the board before you punch the hole. If you don't, you may do serious damage to your furniture or yourself! I highly recommend a closed corrugated cardboard box; a clean pizza box works perfectly. Rest the board on top and punch away.
The next essential for this task is plastic-coated wire. This kind of wire is most often found inside the cables used for telephone and computer installations. Consequently, surplus spools of it may be available from an electrician. If this is not an option for you, then you should be able to get some easily and inexpensively from a button dealer. (Many of the friendly folks who sell buttons, both online and at shows, have baggies of pre-cut wire for sale.) Push a small piece of plastic-coated wire (approximately 1.5-in. long) through the button shank and then through the hole in the card. Gently push or pull the button so that the shank and the wire poke through the back of the card. Now just twist the wire around the shank a couple of times and … voila! Your button is mounted securely and can be easily removed and replaced as needed.
3. Consider playing favorites. Now that you’ve got your collection sorted out, and you’ve begun mounting the buttons onto cards, you’re bound to have noticed that you are especially attracted to certain buttons. Everyone has favorites. Even collectors who say they love every button admit they have one or two particular types that they specialize in. Specialization can be a very good thing. When you specialize in just one or a few types of buttons, you are able to concentrate on learning everything there is to learn about that type of button. Don’t be surprised if your enthusiasm for your favorites spurs you toward deeper research about them. Button collecting, you will soon discover, is more than just the accumulation of pretty little things. Every button has a story. Every button is a tiny piece of history: a moment in time you can hold in your hand.
From a practical standpoint, specialization allows a collector to pare a large collection to a much more manageable size. It also provides the collector with opportunities for swapping or selling buttons for better examples. By upgrading their buttons collectors can add value to their collections. The thrill of the hunt for rarities is often considered the most exciting part of this hobby. Where, you may ask, would one go to hunt for buttons? The easiest answer is to look online for the nearest upcoming button show. State, regional and the national society all hold shows. If you’re able to travel, you could attend a different show almost once a month! If this is not an easy option for you, then consider locating and joining a button club near your home. There is always much to learn, and buying, selling and swapping buttons are often part of each meeting. In addition to these options, you’ll find many buttons available for sale online. Auction sites such as eBay have buttons for sale. Button dealers occasionally have their own websites also. Don’t overlook your hometown antiques stores either. Many a fine button has been found among the jewelry and whatnot.
4. What's it worth? A word about value. Probably the most common question a new collector has is: “How much is this button worth?” The best way to determine the value of any button in your collection is to do your own homework. If you bring your buttons to your new button club with your primary goal being to find out the value of your collection you will be hearing opinions of the button’s value with little evidence to back up the opinions. They may be right on the money, but it’s still better to do a little research yourself. First, determine exactly what type of button you have — this is where your button club can really help. Then attend a show or go online and see what buttons of that type and size and condition are selling for. You may consider asking several dealers if they have something similar for sale, and how much they are asking for it. Take an average of all the prices you find, taking size and condition into consideration, and use that information to determine a value range for your own button. Over time, your exposure to buttons at shows and other venues will help you determine values within your own collection and will help you decide which buttons are smart buys before you make new purchases.
I hope you will find button collecting to be a very rewarding hobby. I know I have. It’s a hobby that touches all other aspects of life. No matter what your other interests may be, you will find a button that connects them. Happy buttoning!
Pam Vasilow resides in Pennsylvania with her husband and two teenage sons. When she’s not collecting buttons, she can be found backstage at the local high school where she works as a theatrical costume designer, teaching students about the creative world of technical theatre. You can email Pam at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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