FORTVILLE — Pat Cooper’s dining room table is covered with buttons. Cards and cards of buttons — each about the size of a piece of notebook paper, and each with a specific theme. One card held buttons made of pearl; another card exhibited more than two dozen small buttons each painted to match the fabric of pioneer-era calico dresses; other cards featured wooden buttons, buttons in the shape of animals or buttons with jewels.
Cooper, from Fortville, riffles through the cards — representing only a fourth of her collection — in preparation for the upcoming Indiana State Button Show and Competition, March 8, 9, and 10 at the Clarion Hotel, 2500 High School Road.
This year’s button collection competition features 28 categories for button collectors to enter. The categories change every year, Cooper said. This year’s list for display entries includes collections of opaque glass buttons, transportation uniform buttons, buttons representing wedding anniversaries (paper, cotton wood, china, silver, pearl, gold, diamond, etc.), reptiles, mechanical or moveable buttons, trees and matching pairs — with the requirement that they be identical except for size.
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Cooper’s plans to compete in the categories of birds, transportation and in the creative category will mean some rearranging and re-categorizing her vast and varied collection, but she doesn’t mind. Buttons have been a part of her life for more than 20 years.
Cooper points out a card overcrowded with buttons.
“For my daughter’s 100th day of school in kindergarten,” Cooper explained, “She had to bring in a hundred of something, and she brought in 100 buttons.”
As president of the Indiana State Button Society, Cooper’s job is to facilitate monthly meetings and work with the show chairman to coordinate the three-day event which will include the show, craft activities, button discussions, button vendors and a button collection competition.
An average monthly button club gathering begins with a short business meeting, followed by show and tell, a button educational program and lunch. Programs are presented by members on a rotating basis that includes Cooper in the mix.
Cooper’s premiere presentation, “Buttons and Biology,” draws on her personal experience of 12 years as an employee the Indiana Department of Natural Resources.
Her boss at the DNR had given her a poster of about Indiana freshwater mussels and tasked her creating an informative display for the poster. Cooper did her homework and learned that freshwater mussels — found in Indiana rivers — were harvested to the brink of extinction because their shells were used in the creation of buttons.
The Potter Button Factory — located in what is now the Key West Shrimp House on the Ohio River in Madison — produced more than 3,000 buttons a week during its peak from the 1890s to the 1940s. Discarded mussel shells, pock-marked with button-shaped holes, can still be found on the property and along the banks of the river.
“Mussels were harvested by the train-car loads,” Cooper said. “The only thing that saved them was (the invention of) plastic. Plastic buttons. Pearl buttons were too expensive.”
Cooper speculates that the manufacture of buttons spurred one of the first local cottage industries. The button factories would create the buttons, she explained, and the housewives would sew the buttons on cards to take to stores to be sold.
Collecting buttons is a free-form hobby. Collectors work to accumulate buttons that may catch their fancy in any imaginable genre. For example, a quick glance through a recent edition of “The National Button Bulletin,” published five times a year, reveals a subset of button collectors: those who collect glass eye buttons from stuffed animals.
Cooper’s home décor includes a button encrusted candle and a framed card of overall buttons — that is, buttons that came off men’s overalls.
“Those buttons have all seen hard labor,” she jokes.
To collect and identify buttons in her collection, Cooper relies on what she calls “the button collectors’ bible” — a large volume entitled “The Big Book of Buttons,” handed down from an aunt who collected buttons. Its text and color pages give details and the value of centuries of buttons.
Cooper’s oldest button is a small brass Masonic button from the 1700s, purchased for $75.
“I bought it because my husband is a Mason, and many of our founding fathers were Masons. Maybe somebody important wore that Masonic button,” she mused.
Some buttons are created just for collectors, Cooper said, citing Idabelle Byer, a Greenfield artist who creates hand-painted porcelain buttons. Cooper owns several of Byer’s creations.
Button collectors will find treasures galore at the weekend show. Dealers coming to the show are likely to have buttons ranging in price from 50 cents to $700.
Cooper used to buy every jar of buttons she came across in thrift stores, antique stores and yard sales. But over the years, she has learned to be more selective. She’ll buy a jar of buttons if she sees something interesting: an embossed metal button, a button with jewels, a button with an unusual shape. Most jars, she said, have been picked over before they go up for sale.
“Buttons are little works of art,” Cooper said, “I just may need a magnifying glass to be able to see it.”
The Annual Indiana State Button Society Show and Competition is March 8 (from 4 to 6 p.m.) March 9 (from 1 to 5 p.m.) and March 10 (from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.) at the Clarion Hotel, 2500 S. High School Road, Indianapolis.
Admission is $5; the show will feature free children’s programs from 9 a.m. to noon on Saturday.
For more information, visit indianabuttonsociety.org