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Modernizing The Button: History You Can Hold

Most historical artifacts get tucked away in museums behind locked doors and thick glass. For some, the best piece of history fits in your palm and sits in a drawer at home.

Lisa Schulz started as a reluctant button collector. The family collection passed down to her reached 10,000 by the time she turned 15. She wanted nothing to do with them—at first.

“There’s a lot of art in the buttons,” Schulz said. “A lot of art that we don’t see in the modern buttons that are in the fabric stores now. A lot of history in those buttons.”

Schultz said most of the family button haul were ordinary shirt buttons with no collector value, but a hand-carved ivory button from India and the buttons from her great grandmother’s wedding dress hooked her.

Years later, she would be president of the National Button Society.

Schulz lives in Wisconsin where she owns and operates Button Images, a button dealing business, with her husband. Schulz’s collection now tops a half a million buttons. She brought them with her to Bloomington-Normal and the Illinois State Button Society annual convention.

Schulz is an old school button collector. She shares her love for historical buttons with the collector just two tables down, Gary Brockman. They both have a collection of hand painted buttons from the 1700s.

shows one of her hand painted buttons from the 18th century
Credit Mary Cullen / WGLT
Button collector Lisa Schulz shows one of her hand painted buttons from the 18th century. Most buttons from the 1700s were painted on watch faces. Men of the time would adorn the lapels of their coats with ornate buttons.

“These are things from the 18th century. You’re probably looking primarily at men’s buttons here,” Brockman explained.

He shuffled through his collection, explaining that men in that era would use these detailed works of art to adorn their coats. Women’s buttons were more like the buttons we see today: small, and purposeful.

“After about 1820 it completely flip-flopped and men’s buttons became much more restrained and women’s buttons really came to the forefront of representing the art movements of the Victorian Era—and they’re wonderful buttons,” Brockman continued. “As far as price point goes here, you’re looking at things in the high hundreds and into the thousands.”

Brockman started collecting in 1993. Today, he makes his living off of them and has lost count.

“There are very few objects that you can hold in your hand where you can actually develop a collection that represents all of that amazing technological history, and science, and art history other than buttons. I’ve never found anything that does it as thoroughly,” he said.

Some buttons have cartoons. Some portray scenes of war. Brockman said his collection provides a hand-held history of the modernization of western art.

And 21st century buttons are becoming more like their early ancestors every day.

Delilah Davis is a lampwork artist. That’s someone who works in glass. After years of making marbles, she tried her hand at button making. She calls it the “modern” button with options that glow in the dark, sparkle, and appear 3-D.

It’s a fresh take on buttons, but Davis said it mirrors buttons of the past in one way. They are used for fashion, not function.

"I don't tire of looking at them."

“When I first started, I was trying to make buttons thinking about it as a fact that you put it on a shirt, so it would have to be tiny. I couldn’t do that because you can’t make little ones. When you’re a studio artist, you make big ones,” she explained.

A hot commodity for purses and jackets, Davis said her buttons are also popular in competitions.

Gary Brockman was a judge at the Illinois Button Society Convention. After holding hundreds of thousands of buttons, he said he just has a knack for knowing what’s good.

“I don’t tire of looking at them,” Brockman shared. “I don’t tire of digging into the history. It just makes it come alive.”

Credit Mary Cullen / WGLT
Gary Brockman makes a living off of collecting and selling buttons.

But Brockman said he’s worried. Younger generations aren’t interested in buttons.

“I find myself wondering what’s going to happen to these objects which are such soulful objects once this hobby—I don’t want to say dies, because I don’t think it ever will, I think there will always be people interested in it. But I guess that’s sort of an open-ended question. Who’s going to take care of all of this stuff?” Brockman questioned. “I hope somebody steps up and does it.”

Brockman might have his answer standing a few feet away.

Stephanie Dyer is a 6th generation button collector and vice president of the Mississippi Valley Button Clubin Quincy.

She plays buttons with the best of them, but there’s one thing that makes her stand out. At 33, she’s the youngest collector in the room.

Dyer said the family collection started with her great-great-grandpa.

“I just had no idea that other people didn’t grow up with this extreme variety of buttons,” she laughed.

As a new-generation button collector, Dyer has some ideas about revitalizing the pursuit. She wants to hold a class on turning buttons into jewelry.

"I just had no idea that other people didn't grow up with this extreme variety of buttons."

“Most people don’t have any idea the detail that goes into these buttons. You can spend anywhere from 5 cents to $3,000 on a button,” she explained.

For Dyer, button collecting was a way of life handed down from older generations. Other collectors aren’t so lucky to find an heir.

Lisa Schulz, the button collector from Wisconsin, said her children have no interest in her button collection. When she and her husband die those half-a-million pieces of history risk being erased, leaving future generations in a museum looking at historical artifacts behind the glass.

The Illinois State Button Society accepts new members from all generations. The next major button show in Bloomington takes place in October, hosted by the Midwest Regional Button Association.

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