Today, buttons are glorified doorstops. Like bureaucrats or congressmen, they act as dull place-keepers on the fabric of society — until their thread snaps and they vanish into the carpet. But members of the Arizona State Button Society will tell you this wasn’t always so.
This weekend’s button show gathers sellers, collectors and thousands of exhibits from the days when buttons were your way of announcing yourself to the world. A look, now, at four local collectors who sew their oats on the anchors of shirts and coats.
Mary Doyle says the copper disk with the script "GW" came a long way to her Tempe button room. "It was worn by Henry Funk, of the Continental Army," she explains. "This was made especially for George Washington’s presidential inauguration, in New York." Doyle couldn’t even guess the size of a collection that consumes her walls, shelves and two filing cabinets that are labeled "Someday I’ll get around to it." Twenty-two years of trading brought some pretty pieces, but she favors buttons with a tale to tell. "I like the history it involves," she says. "You find yourself going through journals and encyclopedias — you make yourself a historian — to find the story behind a particular button."
This year’s show gives her a chance to consult with a Texas counterpart on the origin of a 19thcentury palmetto tree button.
"The palmetto is the emblem of South Carolina and the manufacturer existed between 1814 and 1844. So it could be Confederate or South Carolina militia. I don’t usually deal in military buttons, but you like to solve the mystery."
Jane White poses with an emeaux peints — a painted enamel button of an 18th-century Frenchwoman with a sharp, aristocratic nose. "Nobles commissioned portrait buttons from button guilds back then," she explains.
"This woman was probably someone’s wife or mistress." Is an ornamental button of your mistress such a good idea? "Well," White laughs, "they were French." As a child, White reluctantly helped with her mother’s button collection, until one day she found herself, er, hooked. Now her tidy Chandler home glistens with framed cards of buttons spanning every imaginable style and theme. Russian glass buttons feature landscapes painted with a single-bristle brush, while Japanese deities scowl across her hallway at John, Paul, George and Ringo.
"In the 18th and 19th centuries, buttons were how people showed off," she says. "Rich merchants and members of the aristocracy wore waistcoats fastened at the top. The lapels would run down to the coattails, highlighting these ornate, handcrafted buttons." While she admires the artistry of the bygone age, she has no illusions about its amenities. "Oh, it was a great time to be royal, or wealthy," she says. "But the poor? They didn’t have buttons at all."
Mary Jean Miller
Mary Jean Miller tilts a button card and tiny jewels light the faces of 19thcentury ladies. "These are painted ivory," Miller says, smiling. "Imagine them on a someone’s vest." Like any self-respecting collector, the Scottsdale resident rolls her eyes when asked the number of buttons in her 36-year collection — and she never imagined herself a button collector.
"People hear ‘buttons’ and think of the plastic, mass-produced ones we wear today. But they are surprised — I certainly was — by the creativity and craftsmanship." She nods to a stack of cards featuring lithograph buttons, tintype portrait buttons and painted enamel buttons. Wedgewood animals and hand-carved cupids pose between copper Romeos and Russian buttons with scenes from Chekhov’s plays.
"They say that every form of art is found on a button. What better way to collect art, then?" Miller plans to be just an observer at this year’s show. "I’m just going for fun, so I probably won’t buy anything," she declares. But never say never. "No matter how long you’ve done it, you’re always on the lookout for just one more."
Randi Sweet collects paintings, sculpture, blown glass vases and animals for rehabilitation, but the Scottsdale resident loves talking buttons. "Buttons are my refuge," she laughs as two miniature greyhounds nose her arms and ankles. "They’re my ‘Calgon, Take me away.’ " Younger than her contemporaries, Sweet’s collection emphasizes latterday button making, "from about 1920 to the present." Mass production was a poor substitute for button guilds, "but beautiful pieces can still be found." She holds up a fish, with an arching emerald green body.
"Bakelite, a plastic you used to find in dime stores, has produced beautiful pieces that stand up over time." Sweet says such pieces are popular with California collectors. She keeps abreast of the changing market. The Internet has dramatically increased the interest, if not the expertise, among the masses.
"You have enthusiastic people who accumulate pieces but don’t know what they’ve got," Sweet explains. "We’re trying to get them into these shows, so they can get honest appraisals of what they have and develop a better sense of what to look for."