BUTTONS, BUTTONS, WHO'S GOT THE BUTTONS?
Peggy Mathes still has the first button she ever collected - a trapezoid-shaped piece made of bakelite, trimmed with a row of rhinestones.
"It was in 1988," Mathes said. "I was in an antique store on Coburg Road, the one that used to have a lot of model trains. I wanted to start a collection of something that didn't take up a lot of room, and then I saw a wicker basket full of buttons. They were 10 cents apiece, and they were little; I chose six."
True, one button doesn't take up a lot of room, but 22 years later, Mathes' collection certainly does. Her tidy, ranch-style house near the Lane County fairgrounds is full of buttons, sorted and mounted on poster board by every imaginable category - color, material, age, theme, whimsy. They fill file cabinets and drawers. Framed, they decorate the walls of every room in the house. Open the wooden box with the carpeted top that sits under the window in her living room so that Baxter the dog can look outside, and even that is full of buttons.
"It's a hobby I just adore," Mathes said.
There's nothing she doesn't love about a button. If it's a Danforth pewter button set with a Winnie-the-Pooh theme, she loves it. If it's made from the tagua nut, from trees grown in the South American rain forest, she loves it. If it's a "picture button" featuring Cleopatra - complete with a tiny asp in the corner - she loves it.
A lot of other people also love buttons, although button collecting seems to be a hobby with a declining membership. The local button club, which meets the second Wednesday of every month for lunch, has a dozen members, with about 120 active statewide and 4,000 nationally.
"Button collecting is dying out - it's hard to attract new people these days because everybody's so busy working," said Mathes, who keeps up her own collecting in her spare time from her job as a registered nurse at Sacred Heart Medical Center at RiverBend.
She usually spends three or four hours a week tending her collection, "but before a show it gets to be a lot more," she said.
There's one coming up soon. The Oregon State Button Society's annual competition and exhibition, to be held in Keizer, north of Salem - it's open to the public on April 30 and May 1 - will keep her busy for the next several weeks. Mathes recently served as president of the statewide group and now is its secretary as well as co-chairwoman of "judges and classifications." She's also an officer in the club's Eugene chapter.
As a hobby, button collecting "has been around long enough to become standardized nationwide," Mathes said. "Competitions specify the number of buttons you have to mount, depending on on the size and the theme."
For example, National Button Society rules divide buttons into four categories: large is 1 1/4 inch or more; medium, from 1/4 inch to 1 1/4 inch; small, 1/8 inch to 1/4 inch; and "diminutive," less than 1/8 inch.
"If you use a diminutive button, you have to collect and mount 70 of them for competition," Mathes said. Larger buttons require fewer for judging, as do some themed buttons, such as her "Scotties and Their Canine Friends." One of her favorites, delicate buttons made by the same method as large paperweights, has 32 displayed on one card.
Men as well as women indulge in button collecting, but they sometimes gravitate to different themes, she said. "Lots of guys are into livery or military buttons. One man did buttons with a swine theme, and I know of one collection that had buttons that had anything to do with doors - locks, keys, knobs, whatever."
Although many people become interested in buttons because they sew, it's not the only avenue that leads to button collecting. The stated purpose of the state button society is "to encourage the advancement of education about the history of buttons and trim in fashion, including their manufacture and use" as well as promotion of salvaging buttons as artifacts of history and culture.
Becoming a collector can mean spending a few cents or hundreds of dollars, a few minutes or many hours on the hobby, Mathes said. The fun is deciding what grouping to pursue next, and then going after the buttons to round out that collection.
"You can find 'poke boxes' with really good buttons from 25 cents to $1, and then I've seen buttons for over $1,000 that I'm not likely to ever own," she said.
Right now, she's working on one collection of black glass buttons, another of round buttons with squares within them. She has mounted groups of buttons on every imaginable theme, from women's portraits to black-and-white to "mother-daughter pairs" of identical buttons in large and small sizes.
She also has a stash of "scientific" buttons, made of rubber by Goodyear Rubber and other companies about 1850 when they were experimenting with rubber compounds in search of the hardening process now known as "vulcanization." Charles Goodyear won the patent race, and regardless of which company made the buttons, which were used widely for military uniforms, civilian clothing and political campaigns, they carried the Goodyear patent information on the back.
One of her all-time favorite collecting experiences was a large grouping based simply on song titles.
"I had so much fun doing that one. I had buttons to represent 'By the Light of the Silvery Moon,' 'The Ugly Bug Ball,' 'Autumn Leaves,' 'These Boots Are Made for Walkin', 'Strawberry Fields Forever,' 'A Hunting We Will Go' and many others," Mathes said. "I still enjoy looking at those."
Not that her collection is static. Each of her buttons is carefully wired in its place on the mounting card, but if she needs to borrow one from one collection to fill out another, it's easily removed and replaced. Mathes knows her buttons so well that she can look at a bare spot on one card and instantly identify where the missing button has gone.
Other people, such as Jenna Wagner, have the makings of a button collection and don't even know exactly what's in it.
"My 'collection' is in about six quart jars - I know some of the buttons are as old as 1895," Wagner said. "They date back to my great-grandmother, to the time women wore long dresses and blouses with umpteen buttons on them. Some of the buttons are bone or metal or leather. I know there are some brass buttons from World War II."
She's been to a button show or two, "and I've noticed how they sort the buttons and mount them to show them," but she's never gotten around to that level of organization, Wagner said. "I do remember on stormy winter days when I was a child, sitting around and going through all the buttons was our favorite occupation."
She wishes some of her grandchildren would get bitten by the button bug.
"They are interested in looking at the buttons, but they're so busy with sports and so taken up with electronics, it's at the bottom of their list right now."
But you never know what might provide the spark that sets someone on fire about button collecting, Mathes contends.
"Some people have gotten started by collecting the riveted buttons from their old (denim) jeans," she said. "There's just such a wide range of possibilities."
And, just as no one in the mid-19th century thought that simple rubber buttons would have any future value, "I'm just sure that the really nice buttons being made and used now will be the antiques of the future," she said. "That makes them all worth saving."