Button Hunting

by Susan W. Smith.

      It was back in 1944 that a button collector mused, “At the annual Hobby Show in 1938 if you asked a dealer for buttons he gave you a funny look and acted as though you were’touched.’ In those days only a few dealers had buttons and they were kept out of sight.” After button collecting was featured on radio and in hobby magazines, it did not take long before the interest in collecting buttons grew and by the mid-1960s it was one of the most popular hobbies in North America.

 

Well, to be honest, today in 2017, when I peruse antique shows or shops and ask for buttons the dealers once again act like I am ‘touched.’  “You mean the type on my shirt?” they ask… “well, not exactly” I suggest.

You see I am a 21st Century button collector and I am part of a “once again” growing group of collectors. The difference is that at the last button auction I attended in Florida in February 2017, one set of buttons sold for $1,500 and every hour, dozens of single buttons sold for $300 to $500 each.  But Button Shows also offer buttons to collectors and crafters for as little as 10-cents each.

 

 French Glass  Imitation Fabric, Crewel
French Glass  Imitation Fabric, Crewel
Our great or great-great-grandmothers kept button strings, and then our grandmothers had theirs in cake tins. But the professional button collector of 2017 makes a thorough study of buttons.  The National Button Society (world-wide membership) has a published book classifying buttons by date, construction, art and history.  The beautiful carved shell buttons, French enamels, and intricate worked fabric buttons are truly works of art. Some of the plainest buttons have designs on the back, necessary as there were once British laws against allowing anybody but the noble class to wear fancy buttons. Then there are button clubs located in many places throughout Canada and the United States.  The club in Ottawa usually meets once every six weeks to share their enthusiasm and show off their finds.  The Pioneer Button Club of Oshawa celebrated their 55th anniversary in September 2016, and there are now new clubs springing up in Alberta and Manitoba.

 

So where do you start?  Experts suggest you start with a hunt!  Love dogs, then hunt for buttons picturing dogs. Like sports? There are dozens of buttons in this category: card playing, dice tossing, baseball, skiing – well, you get the picture,  and then they are made of metal, shell, horn, rubber, glass…

One “gentleman” decided if he had to visit Button Shows with his wife, he would collect what he liked… wine.  His collection of grapes on each button was outstanding!

Above: Three Sailors - real collector's items, circa 1950s
Above: Three Sailors – real collector’s items, circa 1950s

You could start with an easier subject:  collect glass buttons.  Small or medium size buttons in Black Glass, or Clear/Coloured Glass, what about looking for as many red buttons as you can find?

Black Glass Buttons.  Note the pin through the fabric!  Millions of Black Glass Buttons were manufactured when Queen Victoria went into mourning upon the death of her husband, Albert
Black Glass Buttons.  Note the pin through the fabric!  Millions of Black Glass Buttons were manufactured when Queen Victoria went into mourning upon the death of her husband, Albert

Once you have found them, think about putting them on a piece of artist’s mat “board measuring 9 x 12”. That is a perfect size for framing.  Hang the frame in a special place, and you are an official button collector.

Above: A National Button Society competition card measuring 9" X 12" with Celluloid Buttons. A lovely display for your living room!
Above: A National Button Society competition card measuring 9″ X 12″ with Celluloid Buttons. A lovely display for your living room!

One item most military-related collections have is buttons. Canadian, British, US and Civil War buttons all remain popular and relatively easy to collect. Often, they are described as “dug” or “un-dug” buttons, denoting whether they were found on a battle field by a metal detector.  The Ottawa Club has a large collection of Police Uniform Buttons from around the world.

Above: Porcelain Buttons with three things going on: Plant life, good luck symbol and a unique shape!
Above: Porcelain Buttons with three things going on: Plant life, good luck symbol and a unique shape!

 

So, to all those antique dealers out there, don’t pass up a collection of buttons; there will be collectors out there hunting.  And to  all those beginners, do watch out… for the buttons start to multiply, no matter how hard you try to limit your hunting.  When asked how many buttons I have, my quick answer is, “never enough.” So, this fall I am going to attend the Canadian Button Convention, to be held in Ottawa at the Ottawa Conference and Event Centre, 200 Coventry Road, September 29, 30, and October 1, 2017.
Visit the Ottawa Valley Button Club
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