Scrimshaw. Royal portraits. Quarter-sized enamel dishes. Storybook scenes and religious iconography. Even hollow ones for smuggling cocaine. These are just a few of the hundreds of types of buttons that Florida’s button enthusiasts collect. And on Saturday, March 26, they will gather in Pinellas Park to display, swap, and share these tiny treasures with the public.
The Florida State Button Society was founded in 1952, says FSBS President, Vicki McTavish, and it has been fostering new aficionados ever since. McTavish, who lives in Orlando, started collecting 35 years ago with her daughter, Jennifer Read, who was then a teenager. While Read later sold most of her collection to buy her first car – this may give you some sense of what highly collectible buttons are worth – she kept her favorites: Third Avenue silvers, an elaborately embossed metallic type named after a huge cache found in an antique store in New York City.
“Buttons are like miniature works of art,” says Read. But you don’t have to have a gallery to collect them. Collectors arrange and mount their buttons in compact displays – known as “trays” – for keeping and competition. Read’s daughter Ella, also a collector, shows me a tray she created for her favorite type: lacy black glass. Jet and smoke-colored glass buttons, produced more than a century ago in Czechoslovakia, sparkle in intricate floral and geometric designs. I’m mesmerized.
“New collectors typically start with a jar,” says McTavish, an all-and-sundry jumble they have found at a yard sale or flea market. Thinking they’ve found a rarity, they will then begin posting questions online.
“As more experienced collectors,” she explains, with a knowing smile, “we will often have to gently inform them that it’s ‘just a button’. But we wait for them to grow.”
And grow they do, often by attending shows like the upcoming Bay Area Button Club’s Swap-N-Shop, which will take place from 9:30AM – 1PM on Saturday, March 26 at Park Station (5851 Park Boulevard) in Pinellas Park. Here newcomers will find 40-50 collectors and dealers, each with their own display table and hundreds of buttons: Collections of buttons in frames, singles or sets on cards, and tubs of buttons for sifting through and selecting. Prices can range from as low as 25 cents apiece to thousands of dollars, depending on their quality and rarity.
Pam Davis, President of the Bay Area Button Club (a regional affiliate of the FSBS), will be there with her collection of insect-themed buttons. Davis, a St. Pete resident, is a retired biology teacher who loves bringing her passion for the natural world together with her collector’s zeal. She’s looking forward to the 2023 FSBS Annual Meeting, where the theme will be “Wild About Florida” and she will connect fabulous flamingo- and alligator-themed buttons with the unique environmental history of the Florida Everglades.
Despite the fact that COVID has shut down the last few gatherings, she expects a sizable crowd at this month’s Swap-N-Show.
Between the haunting Civil War tintype portrait buttons McTavish shows me and the graceful Art Deco crystal buttons Davis describes, I think I see why. There’s a button for everyone, and each is a handheld masterpiece.