Permanent Collections: Buttons | Varyer

The Button is Just an Attempt to Communicate

A brief history and how-to of button collecting from archivist and historian Christen Carter of Busy Beaver Button Co.

A chance encounter with Guided By Voices in swingin’ London in 1995 planted the seed for what would become the world’s largest button collection and Chicago’s busiest button makers.

After being asked to make buttons for GBV, Christen Carter wisely sent postcards to every record label she could think of offering her button-fashioning services and over the last 23 years has seen Busy Beaver Button Co. flourish, designing over 85,000 buttons for museums, breweries, nonprofits (including 50 different pins a year for Planned Parenthood), and individuals alike.

The goal is to tell as much of the history of the country as possible through pinback buttons.

Buttons were an American invention, and have a special magic in their power to tell American history. At the heart of BBBC’s mission is a passion for the history of buttons and collecting. Christen first fell into the world of collecting with her fascination with punk buttons. She went on to spend five years working on Button Power: 125 Years of Saying It with Buttons with professional collector Ted Hake, founder of Hake's Auctions, America's first auction house to specialize in popular culture artifacts. The book distills 1,500 of their most fascinating from their total collection of over 20,000 buttons. “The goal is to tell as much of the history of the country as possible through pinback buttons,” Carter said of the project.

BBBC is certainly a successful business, but more than that they have made themselves an integral participant in their community. Busy Beaver offers events at their Logan Square location to bring people together and learn how to make their own buttons. Part of their mission includes creating and donating buttons to local progressive political campaigns, and their distinguished button museum, located in their Chicago headquarters is open to the public.

Feeling inspired to start your own button collection? Here are Christen’s hot tips for success—

  • Hone in on a theme (a character, a cause, political pins from the year you were born, etc.)
  • The best places to source pins are Ebay, Etsy, Estate Sales, or getting into the American Political Item Collectors (APIC) group on Facebook for collectors nights and online auctions.
  • Make sure to archive your collection! This is history on a pin, and feel free to share your collection with the folks at BBBC.
  • If you want to make your own buttons, Busy Beaver sells button-making kits so you can design custom buttons for future collectors