Have you ever thought about collecting clothing buttons? This means collecting them intentionally because that fruit jar filled with extra shirt buttons taking up space in a dark corner of your closet doesn't really count.
Unless you accidentally saved just the right kind of shirt button from a really old garment, you probably won't find too much in that jar for a collector to get overly excited about. Taking the time to amass a thoughtful collection of clothing buttons can be a rewarding hobby, but only if you take it to the next level.
Button collectors take simple, utilitarian objects taken for granted by millions of people each day and group them into delightful displays that make you stop and think.
A button collection might bring back childhood memories. Some folks put together extra special groupings of buttons for scouting uniforms or children's clothing. Whimsical shapes like bunnies, puppies, and apples stir fond recollections as well.
Some buttons, such as those from the uniforms of military, police officers, and other civil servants, remind us how much those individuals have impacted so many lives over the decades and are revered collectibles.
Then there are those who have a penchant for textiles or sewing, where buttons serve as a natural extension of those interests. Collectors of Bakelite painted porcelain and Jasperware finds that buttons made of these materials go right along with their other interesting displays of collectibles.
What to Look For
Technically, even that aforementioned jar of old shirt buttons holds some collector value. There may be someone out there trying to see just how many different shirt button variations they can come up with. The majority of the buttons avid collectors seek, though, have some special qualities.
Many collectors look for buttons reflecting different styles to document history. After all, the way buttons were manufactured 200 years ago certainly differs from today's techniques. Clothing buttons were made from hand-cut glass, molded clay, and hand-decorated porcelain in the past, among other materials. This contrasts starkly with the machine-molded plastic buttons we find on most modern garments. Sally C. Luscomb in The Collector's Encyclopedia of Buttons (Schiffer Books) says:
"Famous potters and silversmiths of [the 18th] century fashioned buttons with the same beauty as their vases and jewelry."
Another theme in button collecting is portraits, which look like miniature works of art. Finely crafted and expertly painted buttons are more desirable than those decorated amateurishly or with decals.
Some button collections are made up of a few of this and a few of that, basically whatever the owner finds to be appealing. By and large, buttons in odd shapes and sizes, comprised of unusual materials, or of an unusual origin can be the most appealing to avid collectors and hold the most value.
In general, clothing button prices can range from a few cents to a few hundred dollars each. Only rare examples in excellent condition bring high dollar values, though. Those top-ranking buttons are hard to come by these days.
There is also the competition factor to consider. Buttons from Revolutionary War or Civil War uniforms might interest button collectors, but there are collectors of military memorabilia that will pay several hundred dollars apiece to own certain examples as well. These buttons are usually made of metal and some are located with metal detectors and dug from the dirt in battlefields. Rare rubber (also known as vulcanite) examples from 1800s uniforms also surface from time to time.
Buttons gleaned from clothing worn by celebrities or sports stars can also be quite valuable if the provenance is verifiable. Buying a piece of clothing in poor condition at auction might not be such a bad proposition if it contains a number of buttons and scraps of fabric that can be salvaged along with them. These can be sold individually to collectors who would relish owning a little piece of pop culture or sports history.
Out of the ordinary examples can also be valuable. For instance, a brass button depicting Theodore Roosevelt hunting big game from 1904 can sell in the $75 to $150 range depending on the scene shown on the button since there were several different examples made.
Embellishments like hand painting and enameling on antique French or Victorian buttons can lead them to be worth $200 or more. Old pottery buttons crafted and hand-painted by American Indians can also sell in that price range. Unusual motifs like dancing frogs on an old metal button can bring in $150 to $200 as well.
You won't run across these types of buttons often, but it is worth becoming familiar with the high-end examples so you will know what to look for among all those virtually worthless shirt buttons you may have to dig through to find them.
Finding Old Buttons
A side benefit of button collecting comes with being able to find them everywhere. From garage sales to flea markets and textile shows, buttons always abound. Sometimes they are neatly organized, other times they are in a heap big enough to dig through for hours. That is part of the fun of collecting!
Often thrift stores will end up with vintage garments and uniforms holding great buttons. As a matter of integrity, many collectors feel it is best to pilfer buttons only from garments with little or no life left in them. A complete garment will offer more history than just the buttons alone, so keeping them together as long as possible makes sense from a preservation perspective.
It's nice, however, when you do find a somewhat worse-for-wear garment that offers a complete set of matched buttons. Sometimes this allows collectors to add one interesting button to their own collection and share others through trading or selling.
You can also visit button collecting shows and meet others interested in the hobby in the process of adding to your collection. These are usually put on by button collecting societies and clubs, so they will feature some of the best and most interesting buttons available in the secondary marketplace.