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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Dana Wyse has a cureall for, well, everything. Can’t make the bed properly? There’s a pill for that. Need to be a bestselling writer ASAP? An injection is all you need. Struggling to figure out the meaning of life? There’s a capsule for that, too.
The Canadian artist dreamed up Jesus Had a Sister Productions, which she describes as “a fictional pharmaceutical company specializing in quick-fix medicines, dehydrated space food, discount time travel, spy electronics, transistor radios, invisible things, sneaky life hacks.” She’s designed various pills, solutions, and DIY kits in humorous packages meant to remedy any problem with a single dosage.
In an interview with Konbini, Wyse said she first thought of the utopic series in France.
In Paris, I was surprised to find three pharmacies on every street. As I explored the city, I found small packages of unopened medicines on the sidewalk. So I picked them up and wondered what they could be. Imagine if these pills were magic ?! If I swallowed them all at the same time, would they make me speak French or play Barracuda on the electric guitar?
Her discarded findings launched the ironic project that hearkens back to American advertising from the 1960s, which vehemently enforced stereotypes. The fictional company’s tagline reads, “Helping you to create your own reality. Since 1786.”
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Global travel may have stopped almost entirely, but the “Coronavirus Tourism Bureau” is ramping up its latest campaign. The creator of this fictional entity, California-based graphic designer Jennifer Baer, illustrated a set of coronavirus-themed posters promoting the most luxurious of staycation activities in an effort to support social distancing practices. Bask in the warm waters of your own bathtub, get out of the sun by shading yourself with a houseplant, and ride the waves of your couch cushions. Snag one Baer’s posters from Society 6, follow her on Instagram, and support her topical work on Patreon. (via Kottke)
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As travel slows due to the global coronavirus pandemic, a new advertisement released by Apple provides an expansive view of one of St. Petersburg’s most-visited institutions that’s accessible without having to venture into crowded spaces. Clocking 5 hours, 19 minutes, and 28 seconds, the single-shot video spans the Hermitage Museum in the nation’s cultural center. It includes a look at 45 galleries, 588 works, and even has live performances from Russian composer Kirill Richter and a ballet duet from the Hermitage Theater.
The ad was shot to showcase the iPhone 11’s battery life but also offers an impressive view of artworks by Rembrandt, Raphael Loggias, and Caravaggio. “This video to me is all about connection through time,” filmmaker Axinya Gog told ArtNet. “Art that is timeless meets modern life and state-of-the-art technology.” Using a complex system of handheld stabilizers, cranes to span rooms, and even a custom app to control the camera, Gog and the group behind the ad created the single-shot take during the course of six hours in the museum.
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In an effort to draw attention to the ongoing climate crisis and the unprecedented number of bushfires across Australia, 41 artists transformed the streets of Melbourne, Sydney, and Brisbane into the nation’s biggest unsanctioned campaign advocating for immediate action. Last week, those behind Bushfire Brandalism (previously) replaced 78 posters across the three cities with original designs focused on the fossil fuel industry, heroic local firefighters, and the devastation of wildlife and natural habitats across the country.
As a collective group of Australian artists, we have been driven to reclaim public advertising space with posters speaking to the Australian government’s inaction on climate change and the devastating bushfires.
We do not accept that this situation is ‘business as usual.’ We are making these issues visible in our public spaces and in our media; areas monopolized by entities maintaining conservative climate denial agendas. If the newspapers won’t print the story, we will!
Many of the pieces were installed at bus stops and other public spaces complete with a QR code, allowing viewers to scan and access more than 30 charities aiding in the crisis directly. Considering one company controls 59 percent of daily newspaper sales in Australia, the artists also wanted to push back against general advertising practices, questioning media coverage of climate issues.
Artists involved in the campaign include Georgia Hill, Tom Gerrard, Sarah McCloskey, Amok Island, Andrew J Steel, Blends, Callum Preston, Cam Scale, Damien Mitchell, Dani Hair, DVATE, E.L.K, Ed Whitfield, FIKARIS, Fintan Magee, HEESCO, JESWRI, Ghostpatrol, Leans, Lluis fuzzhound, Lotte Smith, Lucy Lucy, Makatron, Michael Langenegger, Peter Breen, The Workers Art Collective, Stanislava Pinchuk, The Lazy Edwin, Thomas Bell, Tom Civil, WordPlay Studio, and Peter Breen, among others who remain anonymous.
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Captivated by the motor taxis occupying the streets of Nairobi, Dutch artist Jan Hoek collaborated with Ugandan-Kenyan fashion designer Bobbin Case to document how the drivers elaborately design their bikes to attract customers. The resulting series, titled Boda Boda Madness—the motorists are referred to as boda boda in the Kenyan city—captures this advertising strategy with a little bit of added flair: each driver dons an extravagant ensemble developed by the designer that matches their rides. The lavishly outfitted bike operators are photographed by Hoek against the Nairobi landscape in stances of their own choosing, resembling real-life action figures.
“Because of their new outfits their income went up, so they really kept on using their costumes. Maybe if you by chance visit Nairobi one of them will be your taxi guy,” Hoek says of the series. You can see the eccentric project throughout 2020 at the Circulation(s) festival in Paris and as part of a group exhibition at Now Look Here in Amsterdam. Keep up with both Hoek‘s and Case‘s latest work on Instagram. You might also want to check out these Japanese work trucks. (via designboom)
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