Saturday, September 12, 2009

Genesis of a Button Collector/ Button Collecting Advice

One of My Favorite
Antique Picture Buttons

I became a button collector when I was sixteen years old, visiting my grandmother in her two story wood frame house in upper Michigan, just before she sold it. I remember sorting buttons from a huge glass jar on the small table in her kitchen. She had diminutive metals and silvered glass, twinkle buttons, fun plastic faces, three large Syroco flower buttons, reverse painted clear glass, and Mexican hats. She had a large black crochet button, a row of tiny brass on a remnant of silk, dyed mother of pearl, bakelite ball buttons in yellow and red, and round black glass with faceted rhinestones. It's possible a few buttons came with her when she emigrated from Finland. They all became mine.

Years later, I began looking for buttons in antique shops and at antique shows. I was about twenty-five when I acquired a small button stash from a shop going out of business, including heraldry buttons, transportation buttons, and a set of brass palm trees with silver gilt, all for $5 plus $3 for the trees, because I didn't know what they were worth, and neither did the dealer.

After that, my success at shops and shows was limited. At shows, I'd sometimes find a few buttons in a jewelry case, but they were often common or damaged and outrageously priced, partly because the dealers were generalists. Worse is when I found only plain plastic buttons in a pickle jar with a calico bonnet, passed off as "vintage" or "collectible," or 1970s plastics in a dusty box or a rusted tin. (Though my brother once found me one of those pickle jars and it contained some of my favorite buttons, several black glass and a carved mother-of-pearl.)

I visited the Lightner Museum in St. Augustine, Florida, and I was fascinated by what to me, at the time, was an incredible collection. (It still is, but I own buttons now, in some categories, to rival it!) I started purchasing books about buttons, and devouring the illustrations. I've never had the chance, to this day, to visit the National Button Society's annual button conference, or my state sponsored show, but, if you can afford it, that is a way to purchase buttons from reputable, knowledgeable, and enthused button dealers.

It's not my intention to promote commercial sites, but e-bay is where I've found most of my buttons. It's important to educate yourself about button designs and materials, and to bid cautiously as you are learning, and not to get caught up in the frenzy. Most button designs, not all, are common enough they will come up for purchase again; and if they don't, there's always another design to satisfy your artistic leanings; and there are some rarer buttons that only the truly rich or the insane can afford.

There are also button dealers that sell from their own sites, but I've found the fixed prices are not always reasonable. It's possible, on e-bay, to sometimes get a deal, or at least a fair price, but it's also incredibly easy to pay way too much on a button that may indeed be beautiful, but common.

As in all antiques, condition is everything. Only bid on a damaged button if you love the design, you're planning to keep it for yourself, and the price is right. When buying a button, I always ask myself, would I pay this price if it were a piece of jewelry?

Regarding jewelry made of buttons- never, never, never buy a piece of jewelry, where the button's shank has been removed- it's like separating Lyra from her daemon. The button will no longer have any value as a button, and a piece of history will be forever destroyed. Almost always, the value of the button, as a button, is greater than the ephemeral button conglomerate the jewelry has become.

Another way to develop your collection, is to ask family members and friends if they or their relatives have any clothing buttons from an earlier generation. Though buttons from the mid to late twentieth century will never rival those of the nineteenth and the turn of the century, modern buttons from the 1920s through the 1960s can be a lot of fun with a surprising variety of subjects and materials, including the Art Deco era and early types of plastics like bakelite and extruded celluloid.

It's possible to purchase beautiful antique, Victorian, and Art Nouveau buttons for as little as $2 to $6 a piece. Glass, pewter, and vegetable ivory buttons are often sold in groups, bringing the price down to as little as 50 cents each, depending on the size and complexity of the buttons. In general, the larger the button, the higher the price. Most of the metal picture buttons depicted on my site range in price from $12 to $24, and I've purchased some for as little as $6, or as much as $38. I don't feel like I've ever paid too much for a button, because a few years later, they've still held their value; and I purchase to keep my buttons, not to sell.

I started this blog as a celebration of antique clothing buttons, and a place to feature the best of my permanent collection, photographing both the front and the backs of the buttons, and at a high resolution, so the buttons can be studied for their artistry and construction. For additional and more comprehensive sources of information on buttons and button collecting, I've provided links to button organizations and museums on my sidebar, including a link for the National Button Society (United States), and the British Button Society.

Soon, I'll be posting a bibliography of the button books I own, indicating which of the books are currently in print or likely to be available in libraries. The books are a joy in and of themselves, so if you can't afford buttons or don't have the space to store them, you might decide instead to buy a book, or to borrow them from your local library, or through interlibrary loan. Still, a picture of a button on a printed page is not the same as a button you can hold (carefully, by the edges, so not to transfer moisture or oils to the surface!).

Image and Text © 2009 Anne AKA Once Upon A Button


  1. Felicitaciones por tu gran colección.

    Un saludo de un colecionista de botones de Punta Arenas (Chile).

    Alberto Manzo G.

  2. Join the National Button Society or California State Button Society page on Facebook! Lots of pictures, info and links!

  3. Wow. I think your favorite has become my favorite. Spectacular!!!

    I'm so enjoying your blog.

    1. I'm glad you like it! My favorite buttons to collect have a "medieval" theme.

  4. Have you ever restored painted picture buttons?
    I have several with the paint very much worn off and some tint as well. How can I restore these and with what kind of paint?

    1. Hi Teresa, I've never tried to restore any button, other than light buffing for tarnished items. I don't use polish. In general (and this is only my personal opinion), as in all antiques, if you "restore" a button by painting over or altering the original art or finish, you are probably taking away historical value, monetary value, and collectibility. For an inexpensive item, however, aesthetically, I imagine you could attempt to restore it, and enjoy it as an item of craft.


Please leave your comments!