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Collectors at statewide convention hope to push all the right buttons

Carolyn Lindell Special to the American-Statesman
Lynn Huck began collecting buttons when she found these pineapple buttons among her mother's things. [Carolyn Lindell For Statesman]

These ladies are getting right down to button business.

Members of the Austin Button Club open their bags and cases full of their collections of buttons at the group’s March meeting. Seven members sit around a dining room table sorting through and examining various buttons as they prepare for the Texas State Button Society 2019 Spring Show in Round Rock, open to the public March 23-24. The free event, which also features competitions, is hosted by the Austin Button Club.

Roughly 200 people could attend the show, depending on the weather, says Mary Todd, president of the Texas State Button Society and treasurer of the Austin Button Club.

At the recent meeting, a bonanza of buttons are splayed on the dining table — large, small, circular, oval, elephant-shaped, made of mother-of-pearl, brass buttons, glass buttons and many more kinds.

Let’s just say this now: This gung-ho group is, well, cute as a button.

For most people, buttons merely help keep their shirts and pants fastened shut. But for these enthusiasts, some buttons are objects of beauty and fascination to be collected and displayed.

As well, they like for the stories about these buttons to be told. A lot of history can be hidden in one small button.

Lynn Huck, 70, says she got interested in the hobby about six years ago. Her mother died, and Huck found that “she had been saving buttons in an old wooden saltbox.” Among this discovery were three “Hawaiian pearl craft” pineapple-shaped buttons, given to her mother for her 16th birthday, Huck says. Soon after, Huck sought out the Austin club.

“We all have a common denominator of buttons,” Huck says. “I look forward to the meetings,” which typically last three to four hours at a member’s house. Each person usually brings her own lunch as they browse the bounty of buttons.

Mary Ann Wilson, 74, says she got intrigued by buttons through an old friend, who knew Wilson went to yard sales. The friend asked Wilson to keep an eye out for interesting buttons. Once she started looking, Wilson says, “I realized the history, complexity and artistry in these little works of art.”

Wilson, who is also a member of button clubs in San Antonio and Burnet, says, “I can’t get enough.”

As well, Todd says she got started because her mother was an avid collector.

“She collected buttons from the time she was 11, and she died when she was 98,” says Todd, 76, wearing a necklace made of buttons by her mother.

Todd also shows a weather-related button (the theme for the Austin club’s Button of the Month). It depicts a scene with an umbrella in it, Todd says.

As they discuss buttons, members sometimes slip into button lingo, such as “snap-togethers” or “realistics,” also called “goofies,” which refer to buttons that resemble the shape of the item depicted, Todd said.

At age 45, Weiling Yin is the youngest member of the Austin club, and her 9-year-old son is a junior member, she says. She got started, she says, when she had a baby and was sewing a sailor suit. She looked online for an anchor-shaped button.

“I realized there are so many rarities and antique buttons that I had never heard about. I became fascinated. There is such a button world,” says Yin, secretary of the Austin club.

As the meeting continues, Yin opens her laptop, with a spreadsheet for keeping track of buttons, among other things.

Lynda Gaetano, 69, is the newest member; she joined last August.

“I like history and antiques,” Gaetano says, but button collecting is a fairly recent interest.

When asked how many buttons each club member owns, many respond with ballpark estimates of a thousand or more.

“It’s like a cat lady,” Huck says. “Once she has seven cats, she stops counting.”

Likewise, Todd says that in addition to her regular collection, she has a 5-gallon jar of buttons that she considers merely “throwaways.”

Members also bring out tools of their hobby, such as magnifying glasses or a National Button Society Official Measure, about 4 inches long, for measuring button sizes.

A handheld blacklight can show buttons that glow.

“I actually specialize in buttons that fluoresce,” Huck says.

Fascination with buttons is nothing new, and button collecting is a bigger hobby than might be expected.

The National Button Society, founded in 1938, “has more than 3,000 members on four continents, with 39 of the 50 states represented by state and local button clubs,” according to The society emphasizes preserving and studying clothing buttons, the site says. The annual national convention is in August in Portland, Ore. About 500 people are expected to attend this event, wrote Yessy Byl in an email. Byl is the president of the national society.

Among many reasons that collecting buttons appeals to a variety of people, Byl wrote, is that it reflects “the diversity of buttons,” as well as offers the “opportunity to develop wonderful friendships.”

The Texas State Button Society formed in 1971, according to information from Wilson. Texas has 11 button clubs around the state, from Fort Davis to Dallas and Houston. Nearer to Austin, clubs meet in Temple and Burnet. Total membership statewide is about 104, Todd says. Although most members are women, a few members statewide have been men, Todd says.

The Austin Button Club held its first meeting in 1975 with 11 members, according to a brief history of the group.

The Austin club, which meets on the second Tuesday of the month, has about eight members, Todd says; regular membership costs $20 for the state society and $10 for membership in the Austin club.

People drive from Liberty Hill and Temple to attend Austin meetings, Todd says.

At this recent meeting, members put together a competition tray for the Spring Show. The trays, which are 9 inches by 12 inches, resemble picture frames and are used to display buttons, which are wired onto a mat board, but judges can take off a button and examine its backside.

Most of the 27 competition categories are for individuals, but one category allows members to work together. Adhering to specifications, members brought “matching pairs … 2 sizes of identical buttons” to be considered for this tray.

“The more representation of materials, the better,” Todd says. “You have to appeal to the judges.” For this group tray, the members consider and select from buttons made of materials such as animal horn, shell, synthetic polymer, celluloid, enamel, colored glass, gemstone and more.

“Did you know that Goodyear used to make buttons?" Todd asks.

For the competitions, members refer to the “National Button Society 2019-2020 Blue Book Official NBS Classification & Competition Guidelines,” which gives detailed guidelines.

Strict requirements for various categories in the Spring Show include “birds specialized to long legged birds, either shown or implied,” “buttons that depict sports, game equipment, pastimes, and games,” and “10 buttons specialized to castles, and 15 fabulous creatures,” among others listed in the 2019 Texas State Button Society Awards.

Huck says she has entered the competitions in previous years. “I have yet to win a Blue Ribbon, but I keep trying,” Huck says.

At the family-friendly Spring Show, about 14 vendors will be on hand, Todd says. Other activities will include Button Bingo, programs such as “Opera on Buttons,” silent auction and more.

Texas State Button Society 2019 Spring Show

Wingate by Wyndham Hotel & Conference Center, 1209 Interstate 35, Round Rock

9 a.m. to 5 p.m. March 23 and 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. March 24

Free and open to the public