For as commonly practiced as it is, button collecting has a relatively low profile. Indeed, a great many button collectors are unaware their interest is part of a larger hobby. Then there are the members of the Texas State Button Society, whose enthusiasm for buttons is on par with that of baseball card or Star Wars memorabilia collectors.
Founded in 1971, the Lone Star State chapter of the national organization has made it a goal for members “to organize and promote the learning and friendship [they] share through taking joy in buttons.” And by “buttons,” they mean the kind sewn on clothing, as opposed to pinback buttons that bear the likenesses of people or band emblems or political slogans.
On March 6, the Texas society holds its annual spring convention in virtual form, and in keeping with the season’s arrival, this year’s theme is “Buttons, Birds, and Blooms.” (Click here for information on how to attend the virtual state conference via Zoom.) One of the prime attractions at this year’s event is a presentation centered on flowers adorning buttons to be given by Joy Journeay, a button-collecting star who lives in Alaska.
In pretty much every extended family, somebody has stashed away somewhere a big jar or tin full of buttons, most likely inherited from grandmothers or great-grandmothers. And these people can’t seem to let these buttons go. While they may not add any new additions to the collection, they do like to look at them from time to time or incorporate them into crafts. It never occurs to them that preserving a collection is pretty much the same as creating one, and that their button hoard is in fact a hobby—one with price lists; regional chapters; clearly defined standards; and local, regional, and national conventions.
“Exactly!” enthuses Kathy Hurst, founder and director of the Davis Mountains Button Club in Fort Davis. “That’s so true! I had buttons for 10 years before I knew it was a thing, just like stamp collecting or coin collecting.”
Hurst heads one of the 11 regional clubs in the Texas State Button Society. The other clubs are in Austin, Burnet, Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, San Angelo, San Antonio, Temple, Waco, and Whitewright. Altogether there are around 100 members, mostly female and over the age of 55. Houston was the first club in Texas, and its president, founding member Herman Bangeman, is the only male president among the Texas chapters.
With her joyous fervor, Hurst, a retired schoolteacher and military wife, can talk even the most button-agnostic person into pondering starting a collection of their own.
It’s in the stories she tells and the way that she tells them. “I started the chapter when I moved here five years ago, and two of our members work at the fort,” she says. “So, we got to go into the archives there to see the buttons found on the ground over the years. Military and civilian buttons from the 1800s found right there on the ground! It’s super cool, little pieces of history, you know?”
It’s also in the thought she’s given to the psychology and traits that bind her and her fellow collectors together. “It’s a certain kind of person who likes art, history, and fashion. We have programs where we learn about the materials in the buttons, and a lot of the time we learn about the Industrial Revolution. When did we become technically able to do this, and patents, and things like that. That history follows right along with jewelry and fashion. There are buttons by the big fashion designers from the 1930s, military buttons, and the ones Queen Victoria made when Albert died and she was in mourning.”
As for serious collecting, Hurst says there is a button-collecting bible: the Blue Book. The National Button Society publishes the tome, which defines and classifies buttons by material, size, and style and enables button society members to hold competitions. “We will have challenges where we will say, ‘Present 25 medium-size China buttons,’ and see who can do the best job with that.”
As with the collection of any more or less ubiquitous item with a wide range of variants, it’s best to specialize, and Hurst does have her favorites: Czech glass buttons are near the top, but also vaseline glass.
“It has a little tiny bit of uranium in it to color it—a yellow-green color. And they made uranium glass buttons, too, and if you put them under a black light, they glow! There are different mineral salts in the buttons to give them different colors—manganese and cobalt and such.” (Moonglow glass is another favorite; Hurst loves luminosity.)
“Just when I tell myself I won’t buy anymore, I find some new ones I’ve never seen before,” Hurst says, a little ruefully. Ah, the true collector’s lament. For new and experienced hobbyists alike, Hurst recommends Button Country as a great all-purpose website. And while she says Ebay and Etsy are staple sites for button-shopping remotely, there is no substitute for the big Kahuna—the national button show, to be held this summer in Manchester, New Hampshire.
“You go to the national show, and there are hundreds of dealers and hundreds of thousands of buttons and you kind of hyperventilate, like, ‘Whoa, look at this!’ Some of them are so expensive. Buttons are artwork—little tiny pieces of art. Some of them are very old and ornate and others are just plain-Jane buttons but we kind of treasure all of them.”
Button collectors don’t have a fancy official name, like philatelists (stamps) or numismatists (coins). According to Hurst, in olden times in certain English villages, those who made buttons were called “buttoneers,” but for some reason that name has not caught on with the hobbyists. Too much respect for the OG buttoneers, I’d wager. But whatever you call a button collector, it doesn’t really matter when a hobby brings this much joy.
“Tomorrow the button ladies of Fort Davis and I are going to meet at the ice cream caboose in downtown Fort Davis, and we are going to sit in the courtyard behind there, eat our lunch, and talk about buttons, just because it’s fun,” Hurst says. “It’s a little like an addiction.”