Published: October 20, 2020
Button Power: 125 Years of Saying It with Buttons is a new book, hot off the Princeton Architectural Press, that takes a deep look at a form of wearable expression that preceded social media and reflects the history of American culture in all of its arenas, from politics to entertainment to sports, and everything in between. With a new auction record for the form set just as the book was released, it seemed an appropriate time to speak to the authors – Christen Carter and Ted Hake – and pin them down about what drives the passion for this small but powerful cultural memento.
Describe how you became interested in buttons?
(TH) Although just 17 and in high school, I was a serious coin collector in 1960. But a colorful pile of William Jennings Bryan presidential campaign buttons stole me away from my coin world. Compared to my uniform blue covered coin albums, lined inside with rows of holes, each with the known mintage of every date and mint mark printed right below, buttons were graphic and colorful and mysterious and warm because of their celluloid covering. Buttons and coins do share two main attributes – their sizes and shape, but little else. Ironically, since I was attracted by what was unknown about buttons, once a convert, I set out to remove at least some of the mystery of what exists by cataloging in my various button books somewhere around 16,000 different to date, but the neat thing is that many thousands are still waiting to be discovered.
(CC) I started really liking them with I was 12. I was able to buy one with my own babysitting money. It was of my beloved Snoopy and Woodstock. Being able to own something of them and wear it made me feel really special. In my teens, it was a way to show people which punk bands I liked. I’ve always liked design and love connecting with people – so it’s the perfect medium for me. Buttons just kept unfolding, the more I learned about how people use design and messaging to express themselves and build community, the more I appreciated the older buttons. Once I got deep into history as told through buttons, I realized how deep and wide they tell history. Now I’m hooked! It can be at least a lifetime of learning in these little items!
Is there a Golden Age for buttons? When was that and was there a reason why it happened then?
(TH) The button exploded across America in an introductory burst following the nomination of William McKinley at the June 1896 Republican Party presidential nominating convention in St Louis. Less than a month later, the second button tsunami was launched when in Chicago the Democrats nominated William Jennings Bryan, the Boy Orator from Nebraska, and at 36, the youngest nominee ever, following his sensational Cross of Gold speech which made “Sound Money” (gold) vs “Free Coinage” (silver) the overriding election issue. Somehow, the inventor of the button, the advertising specialties firm of Whitehead & Hoag Co. in Newark, N.J., was geared up to not only create the onslaught of popularity but also to meet that onslaught with their new product: the pin-back button. Product advertisers immediately hopped on the political button bandwagon with one, the makers of High Admiral Cigarette, calling the button “the greatest fad of all.” This Golden Age of the Button began in 1896 and extends to around 1912 in terms of the sheer number of gorgeous color designs, hand drawn artwork and use of creative typography. However, there are beautiful buttons from all eras, as Button Power demonstrates.
Are buttons universally adored or is this a more American love-affair?
(CC) While buttons are available more or less globally, they are an American thing. Invented in Newark, N.J., in 1896, buttons started reflecting American culture immediately. Buttons have had big moments in other countries, like punk rock buttons in the UK in the 1970s and 1980s. And I’ve found buttons on my travels to Portugal and Cuba – and I own many from the Soviet Union, South Africa, China and Japan.
Have buttons influenced previous elections? If so, in what way?
(TH) The button’s ancestors, first the metal token and later the photographic lapel badge, both widely used in the Nineteenth Century, have been trying to influence elections since 1824. The late 1700s American unity of successful revolution gradually eroded, and our two-party system began forming in the early 1800s. By the time of our tenth election in 1824, a new idea appeared in the form of small, quarter-sized brass tokens carrying the likeness of presidential candidate Andrew Jackson on the front and a supporting slogan on the back such as “Hero of New Orleans.” Given the billions of lapel badges and pin-back buttons produced since then, it sure gives these wearable devices credibility as influential objects. Of course, accurate predictability is not assured as the Willkie 1940 campaign button stating “100 Million Buttons Can’t Be Wrong” was wrong.
Can you describe the role buttons have played in social justice movements and cultural moments?
(CC) Cause and issue buttons have been around since the very beginning in 1896 when it was about the value of the dollar in relation to gold and silver. Some big moments in issues are prohibition, suffrage, pro and anti-war, rights for Black Americans, farm workers, Indigenous people, women, you name it. Buttons are a perfect medium for spreading ideas for change. Grassroots organizations use them to build community. Buttons show support and encourage discussion. The power of buttons is that you literally have to stand behind them, so there’s no anonymity.
What are some pop-culture facts about the use of buttons?
(CC) Buttons cover so much pop culture – it goes wide and deep! The smiley face button is a great example. It was created in 1963 to help improve the morale of employees at an insurance company and has become one of the world’s most recognizable images. In the 1970s, it was an antidote to the grim realities of the times around the Vietnam war. In the 1980s, it was the symbol for rave/acid house culture, and today it has many moods, as depicted in emojis.
Looking at the market for collecting buttons, what are the top prices a button can command? What is the current auction record for a button?
(TH) The auction world record for a button was just established by the auction house I founded in 1967, Hake’s Auctions. Auction #230, which closed September 23, presented the star attraction from the legendary baseball button collection of the late Dr Paul Muchinsky. With a winning bid of $62,980, a new owner acquired the only known 6-inch diameter oversized celluloid button to picture individually the 1916 World Series winning team members of the Boston Red Sox featuring three future Hall of Famers, including the 21-year old pitcher and batting star Babe Ruth. This instantly became both the highest price baseball button and most expensive button ever sold at auction.
Is there a ‘Holy Grail’ of buttons?
(TH) Although an example has never come to the auction market, the holy grail of buttons is one showing side by side portraits – this configuration is called a “jugate” in the hobby – of the 1920 Democratic party nominees James Cox for president and Franklin Delano Roosevelt for vice president. The holy grail version is 1¼ inches in diameter and would likely exceed $100,000. While smaller sized Cox/FDR jugates exist, all are also scarce to rare and, if free of significant damage, have auctioned between $25,000 and $50,000.
What is the most common pre-conception people have about buttons?
(CC) I think that people think of them as a niche, very limited item. But they also run the gamut – covering huge events like space travel, memorials, displaying art, rallying for a cause, advertising and so much more. It really is surprising to see how beautiful and poignant many of them are. And how they capture a moment in time.
As you were researching and writing this book, did you have any revelations?
(TH) While researching our book, Christen and I were thrilled to discover the man, Randy Wicker, behind the mid-1960s iconic New York City East Village storefront at 28 St Marks Place named Underground Uplift Unlimited at a location dubbed by Wicker as “the central thoroughfare of East Coast hippiedom.” This was an amazing era of turmoil, protest and rapid change. The early 1960s growing Civil Rights Movement, which had long used the button as a symbol of membership and a weapon of nonviolence, by the spring of 1964 extended its use on May 2 to mark the first major student protest against the Vietnam War and, that fall, expanded to symbolize support for the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley at the University of California. By 1965, buttons were everywhere. Wicker rode the wave right out of his Greenwich Village apartment-based mail order button business to his store front that opened May 1966 and was devoted to buttons, posters and the trappings of the hip movement. Wicker was not only the primary creator of attention-grabbing slogan buttons; he actually ran contests in which other people created slogans for him in return for the “prize” of a few bucks and free buttons. By the end of 1966, Wicker was shipping 10,000 buttons a month largely to college campus towns and cities across the USA. We are so pleased to include in Button Power and preserve for history, as Appendix B, “Randolfe Wicker’s Recollections of Underground Uplift Unlimited.”
We seem to be at a significant point in history – presidential elections, Black Lives Matter, COVID-19 – Do buttons play a role? If not, do you think they should be?
(CC) Absolutely! I own a button manufacturing company called Busy Beaver Button Company and am seeing so many people mobilizing to create change. At first while under stay-at-home orders, we found that people stopped ordering buttons, but now that people are out walking around with masks on, the button can kind of speak for them. Plus, everyone has something to say and we’re relying on community more than ever.
Editor’s Note: Button Power: 125 Years of Saying It with Buttons, by Christen Carter and Ted Hake went on sale on October 13. The hardcover volume is priced at $24.95.
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