Dear readers, the time has come to let you in on a secret.
I am an imposter.
You see, even though I’ve written a book entitled THE BUTTON COLLECTOR, I know next to nothing about real button collecting. It’s true that I casually gather buttons and display them around my house. I appreciate their personal and artistic qualities and, most of all, their ability to trigger memories. But that’s about it. I know nothing about materials or origin or historical significance or rarity or anything like that. I can barely tell you what cloisonne or celluloid is, and I couldn’t distinguish an intaglio from a cameo.
That’s why I was so excited when I got a warm invitation to sit in on the June meeting of the Western North Carolina Button Club. I’d heard about such clubs for a while but I had no idea there were button club members practically down the street from me.
The meeting was held over a lovely lunch at a member’s lovely home and began with our lovely hostess—Sally–passing around her set of Mandarin hat buttons.
The buttons, however, weren’t lovely.
They were . . . exquisite . . . beautiful . . . exotic . . . splendid. I’ll be honest here and say that to my most un-expert eye they didn’t even look much like buttons at all. To me they looked a bit like those jewel-toned minaret-shaped bubble glass ornaments that mesmerized me for hours when I was a kid. (I was entertained easily.) Sally, however, explained that 19th Century Chinese officials wore them on their hats to show rank. They were companions to an assortment of Asian antiques she’d collected over the years, she added, pointing to a set of intricate silk robes mounted in shadow boxes on her living room wall.
Just as I was trying to get my head around that, the club president, Helen, popped a question: “Are you a button collector?”
I decided that coming clean was the only option. “Not really,” I said. “I just use them as a literary device. I like the way they are so personal and seem to have stories and I have a jar or two, but that’s it.”
Helen didn’t scoff. She nodded and smiled warmly. “I always say I wish buttons could talk,” she said. “I know they could tell stories.”
As we sat down, the ladies—this club mostly consists of women although there are serious male button collectors as well— were all abuzz because they had recently been to the state competition and came home with the most blue ribbons.
That’s right—the state competition. The Western North Carolina Button Club is part of a larger organization called the National Button Society, which has chapters in most states and regularly puts out paperback publications devoted to classifying buttons according to their historic and artistic significance. From what I can tell, the competitions have a rather unique element in that much of the contest relies on creating the most impressive, creative and attractive set of buttons based on extremely strict and esoteric criteria. For example, one of the categories was for cards of silver buttons, but they weren’t just any silver buttons. They had to include five Native American silver buttons, five Mexican silver buttons, five peasant silver buttons, and five free-choice silver buttons.
I was beginning to think that there is likely a substantial overlap between button collectors and librarians…..
We spent some time getting to know each other. They asked questions about my book. I asked questions about their collections, such as what was the oldest button anyone in the club owned. They thought for a moment and concluded it was a 16th Century metal button from Holland.
Okay, so that was pretty impressive, but to me the neatest thing about the club wasn’t the rare, historic buttons or the extensive collections, or even the great stories. What struck me most after spending two hours with the button club was the connection and support this group of people found in one another. They came from widely different backgrounds, lived in different towns, were different ages and probably had very different life views. Still, they’d found that they shared an appreciation—a gift—of being able to see the beauty and history of a small item that is overlooked by most people. In sharing that, they had come to care for each other as well.
In many ways, the buttons once used to fasten clothing now serve to create a real human connection.
Kay, for example, told how she and her daughter drive up from South Carolina for the button club meetings. A former fourth grade teacher from Florida, she wrote a book called “Introduction to Button Collecting” that is designed for beginners. “I love the history behind them,” she explained. “Before the Industrial Revolution, buttons could be made of anything—hair, milk even. I really enjoy the research. When my husband passed away he said, ‘Thank God you’ve got your buttons.’
“I know wherever I go I can find button people and button people are always so nice.”
Button People Profiles is a feature on my blog that showcases some of the fascinating people around the world who use buttons in fabulously unexpected ways. For more on the Western North Carolina Button Club, look for the Hendersonville Times-News on September 22, 2013.