A New Book Chronicles the 125-Year History of the Button, Its Design, and Its Role in Cultural Change
If something is “fit for the back of a postage stamp,” it’s generally understood as lacking depth and nuance. A similarly sized object, however, has been upending that saying for 125 years. From political campaigns to punch lines to keepsakes, the button has packed bits of incredibly rich history into just a few inches. “It seems like a niche little object, but it really tells a very general American history,” collector and manufacturer Christen Carter tells Colossal. The wearable item is, in fact, an entry point into the complexities of the past.
Carter recently co-authored the forthcoming book Button Power—which is available for pre-order on Bookshop—with notable dealer Ted Hake, who’s been collecting the objects for around 60 years. Through composed displays and black-and-white photos, the tome delves into the item’s history, spanning its invention in 1896 to contemporary usages. “Early on people were wearing buttons, and mostly it’s a temporary thing. It’s a moment in time,” Carter says. “They connected you to something else. One-hundred-twenty-five years ago, images weren’t as prevalent as they are now.” Button Power compiles a diverse array of notable figures, from Shirley Chisholm and the Ramones to Rube Goldberg and Muhammad Ali, each represented through the wearable item.
Originally a casual collector, Carter now is responsible for the world’s only museum dedicated to the medium, which is housed in the Chicago-based manufacturer Busy Beaver Button Co. The institution currently boasts more than 40,000 buttons and is accepting donations. Currently, it’s closed because of COVID-19, although a virtual archive of about 9,000 is available to scroll through on its site.
A medium with popularity perpetually in flux, the button has risen and fallen since its creation and notably surged in the 1960s and 1980s as it was used more widely for countercultural movements and protests. Of course, mainstream efforts from political campaigns, public figures, and large-scale events generally still sought out buttons to share their visions. Many of the slogans and broader undertakings of alternative movements that may have evaded popular narratives, however, also are preserved by the object. “It’s a people’s history, too. There are so many things I learned,” Carter notes. One example involved a series centered on transportation. “What is this ‘good road’ stuff about?” she wondered. “I learned that before there was income tax, there was a movement to have infrastructure built.” Telling a story she didn’t learn in school, the buttons offered a glimpse into the advocacy of previous decades.
While the manufacturing process and function hasn’t evolved much, the objects’ value has. Carter notes that when they first emerged, people regarded them as collectibles that were prized as a piece of printed matter. Today, they remain a symbol of the wearer’s political affiliations and interests.
Even social media hasn’t eclipsed the ephemeral object. Although the pithy messages and quips prevalent on sites like Twitter function similarly to the sayings of the button, they lack a material presence and are subject to being deleted or lost when a platform folds. The physical item, on the other hand, has a lasting effect. “It creates a momento,” she says. “It’s not something you can as easily forget about like a Tweet or something like that because you’ll come across it in your sock drawer.” They’re also a more intentional medium, Carter notes, due to the design, manufacturing, and distribution processes and the effort those require.
Overall, buttons are overwhelmingly uplifting, inspiring, or humorous in messaging, even when centered on serious topics or issues. One tells people to “hang in there” while displaying a rendering of a cat clinging to a rope nearby, while another (shown below) simply is emblazoned with the words “I Love Ringo.” The optimism helps to start the inevitable conversations from a constructive point. “More positive buttons make them more wearable,” she says. “A button you have to stand behind. Where online stuff can be pretty anonymous, there’s something about having some skin in the game.”
Despite the mediums’ changes during the last 125 years, the ability to provoke conversation and inspire change is constant. “The person-to-person stuff is just so important, and I think it’s something we’re missing. I would love for buttons to help bridge gaps between human beings because I think in the end, we all want a lot of the same things,” Carter adds.
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Between 1596 and 1647, art dealer and diplomat Philipp Hainhofer traveled around Europe amassing an incredibly rich collection of signatures in the “Große Stammbuch,” or “Album Amicorum.” Akin to an autograph book, Hainhofer’s register is replete with the marks of Cosimo II de’ Medici, Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, and Christian IV of Denmark and Norway, to name a few. Covered in red velvet, “Album Amicorum” was part of a larger trend to record family, friends, and acquaintances that began in the 16th Century.
Hainhofer compiled the signatures during the course of 50 years, beginning when he was a college student. As he gained religious figures and royalty as clients, he’d ask them to sign his book and commissioned about 100 detailed illustrations to sit alongside. The elaborateness of the illustrations directly corresponds to the signatory’s status and rank in society.
This week The Herzog August Bibliothek purchased the centuries-old tome—which was thought to be lost until it emerged in a London auction in 1931—for about $3.1 million. It’s the library’s second attempt to acquire the historic book after August the Younger of Braunschweig-Lünebur, who was Hainhofer’s friend, failed to buy for the Wolfenbüttel, Germany-based institution in 1648. (via The History Blog)
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In a follow-up to the 2016 book Overview featuring stunning imagery of the Earth from above, Overview Timelapse: How We Change the Earth takes a critical look at the numerous ways humans have completely altered the surface of our planet in a very short time through urban development, climate change, and deforestation. Overview founder Benjamin Grant and writer Timothy Dougherty have teamed up to examine some 250 new satellite images that capture the remarkable changes currently taking place all around us from a dramatic macro perspective.
The Daily Overview is an immensely popular Instagram account started by Grant in 2013 that shares a fascinating overview photograph each day. Overview Timelapse is currently available for pre-order on Bookshop.
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Along with a comb and shuttle, textile artists crafting “tsumekaki hon tsuzure ori,” the intricate and durable brocades that are part of Japanese traditions, employ the jagged tips of their fingernails. Common in the Shiga prefecture, the ancient technique utilizes the weaver’s grooved nails to guide the threads down the loom, ensuring they’re placed tightly together. The “tsuzure ori,” or tapestry weave, has roots in the Muromachi period (1336 to 1573), while this specific method has been in Japan for at least 1,000 years, according to Kiyohara Seiji, a representative of Kiyohara Textile Co., Ltd.
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Shot in 1902, “The Flying Train” takes viewers on an uncommonly crisp journey aboard a suspended railcar. Throughout the two-minute video, riders see Wuppertal residents walking across pedestrian bridges and down dirt roadways more than a century ago. The city is known still today for its schwebebahn, which is a style of hanging railway that’s unique to Germany.
MoMA recently pulled the black-and-white footage from its vault and said that curators originally believed it was shot with 70-millimeter film rather than 68. “Formats like Biograph’s 68mm and Fox’s 70mm Grandeur are of particular interest to researchers visiting the Film Study Center because the large image area affords stunning visual clarity and quality, especially compared to the more standard 35mm or 16mm stock,” a statement notes.
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Two new paintings by Kerry James Marshall feature a central crow that looms over a botanical backdrop. One or two birdhouses, which have entrances that are too small for the blackbirds to fit through, are perched on the leafy branches along with more petite species. Part of an ongoing series, the acrylic paintings are based on John James Audubon’s Birds of America, an archetypal text cataloging 435 life-size watercolors of avian creatures.
Marshall’s artworks provide a multivalent counterhistory to conceptions of race in the United States. While Audubon is recognized widely for his contribution to ecology and natural history in America, his own background is conflicting. The ornithologist was born as Jean Rabin in Haiti to unmarried parents: his father was a white plantation owner, while his mother’s identity is not as well-documented. However, many people believe she was a Creole chambermaid who may have had a mixed racial heritage. When Audubon migrated to the United States in the 19th century, he changed his name and masked his potentially biracial background.
Throughout his life, the famous birdwatcher and artist both supported and actively participated in chattel slavery, enslaving and selling people throughout the early 1800s. Audubon, who passed as white, also sought out relationships with presidents James Harrison and Andrew Jackson to promote his studies. In 1976, though, the artist’s work was included by curator David C. Driskell in his exhibition Two Centuries of Black American Art, which positioned Audubon within the Black arts canon.
Today, Marshall utilizes ornithologist’s studies as a way to consider the narratives around race in his series, Black and part Black Birds in America, which on view virtually through August 30 at David Zwirner. The Chicago-based artist paints large crows in chromatic black, which is composed entirely of dark reds, blues, or greens. Another smaller bird, like a goldfinch or cardinal, has the deep shade on its face or wings, evoking the one-drop rule, or the claim that one Black ancestor was enough to grant a relative that same identity.
Because Marshall forgoes actual black pigment when painting, he evidences that racial categories are simply a social construction rather than a biological fact. Similarly, the ambiguous titles of the series compare the classification of birds to that of people, utilizing the color to reference both the creatures’ feathers and human categorization of race. “None of us works in isolation. Nothing we do is disconnected from the social, political, economic, and cultural histories that trail behind us. The value of what we produce is determined by comparison with and in contrast to what our fellow citizens find engaging,” Marshall says.
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