By Ed Larson
The only Vermont button club is celebrating a 40th anniversary this year, coinciding with National Button Day on Nov. 16.
The Verd Mont Button Club in Rutland is comprised of approximately 25 members who meet monthly for eight months of the year. During the four coldest months they peruse, clean, mount and learn about buttons at home while exchanging emails, texts and phone calls. Many members have clothing or apparel buttons dating back hundreds of years.
The name is separated into the original Verd (meaning green) and Mont (meaning mountain). The original membership felt this provided a special sense of identity for the club.
A display of colonial copper, silver and military buttons is being shown in a glass display case at the Vermont State Welcome Center in Fair Haven, through the month of November. Some of the colonial coppers and silvers came from a homestead built in 1795 in Rutland and still occupied to this day by descendants of the original builders. The military display is quite appropriate with Veterans Day being observed during the month of November.
In April, Gov. Phil Scott signed a proclamation dedicating Verd Mont Button Club Day, in celebration of the club’s efforts in regional competitions and educational programs as well as 40 years of continuous existence. The governor’s proclamation is also on display at the Fair Haven Vermont Welcome Center. Club members have won awards, including one People’s Choice Award at the New England Regional Button Association (NERBA) Show. Two members serve on the NERBA board of directors. Other members have been directly involved in presentations to the National Button Society annual show. N.B.S. grants have assisted the Verd Mont club with biennial open house button shows in Vermont.
Heard the saying “cute as a button?” Cute as a button isn’t the original phrase. The word cute was derived from the 1731 English meaning of the word, “acute,” bright or clever. One of the most approved explanations of the saying is ‘being acute as a button” or referring to the shine of polished brass buttons. And there are hundreds of millions of brass buttons out there.
Those little tins, baskets, cigar boxes and containers of buttons that have been passed down through generations, sometimes contain treasures that not only depict family history but are worth some serious money to collectors.
Colonial copper buttons sell for up to $750 each and more, and Civil War military buttons run into the thousands of dollars. George Washington inaugural clothing buttons can fetch over $10,000 in auction or private sales. Most are valued a lot less but have significant value to the individual collector. Like artwork varies in pricing, buttons also run the full spectrum of costs. The variables are rarity, artwork, historical significance and providence. Many of the detailed buttons are considered works of art today and displayed as museum pieces, such as in the Keep Homestead Museum in Monson, Massachusetts.
“My grandmother put buttons on paper plates and hung them up as pictures,” said Betty Cross of South Royalton. Betty kept those plates for many years, not knowing what to do with them. Eventually she met with a collector from New Hampshire who invited her to a meeting and a 30-year-hobby of collecting commenced. Cross has been active in the New England Regional Button Association, which meets once a year for competition amongst collectors, and Betty is considered one of the Verd Mont Button Clubs senior experts on button collecting.
Many members possess thousands of buttons that cover the gamut of garment buttons. Many people are surprised to learn that buttons on garments were predominantly worn by men rather than women in original usage. Today zippers and Velcro may become the collectables a century from now.
Lisa Wernhoff, of East Montpelier, got her start after joining 4-H at the age of 8. Semi-retired now, the former archivist for Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream stated she started sewing as it was hard to find age appropriate clothing for someone who is tall. Her and her sister made button bracelets while spending one night at her grandmother’s house. “My favorites were black glass because they were so shiny and made a clicking noise when I wore them,” she states. “Grandma would give us a piece of stretchy elastic cord and a tin of button’s; we were allowed to pick any we wanted and string them on the elastic.”
In college, Wernhoff majored in home economics with a concentration in clothing, textiles and design. She now has some twenty drawers full of buttons from four generations of family members, adding that purchases have also added to the lot as there were many buttons “too pretty to pass up.” She then joined the Verd Mont Club five years ago when the “button collecting bug hit.” As a result, she has joined four button associations, and reads countless books and articles on buttons.
All the club members, like Wernhoff, are automatically members of the Northeast Regional Button Association (NERBA). Most belong to the National Button Society, and a few belong to the British Button Society.
Carol and Robert Curtis of Proctor are husband and wife members. Robert said that his wife received a collection of buttons from her great aunt. After becoming interested in that collection the Curtises began purchasing from garage sales and other places. Curtis says the current club president Amy Larson suggested they attend a meeting, and were hooked on the history and vast amount of information available. Buttons collectors become chronologists of history. The Curtises state that club members are just fun to be around as they share information.
Sharing information has been a theme for the Verd Mont Button Club. Displays at Vermont welcome centers, open houses in Rutland, Middlebury and Shelburne, along with lectures and seminars on button history have been instrumental activity for the club. Another statewide open house is planned for the Montpelier area in 2021.
The late Warren Tice of Essex Juntionwas a founding member of the Verd Mont Button Club and wrote the definitive books on military button collecting from 1776 to 1865 titled Uniform Buttons of the United States is sought after internationally by collectors. Tice’s “Dating Buttons” a limited-edition printing exhibits prices up to $1,500 per copy.
Susan Peden of Shoreham worked as the education coordinator at the Henry Sheldon Museum in Middlebury. She was attracted to the hobby by a friend, the late Barbara Wells, whom Susan observed cleaning trays of buttons from the collection of Ida B. Horton. One of Peden’s hobbies is Civil War reenacting and sewing reproduction 19th Century clothing.
“Barbara did not miss my interest in the subject of her task and began inviting me to the Verd Mont Button Club meetings,” Peden said.
The first meeting was enough to convince Peden, who is always on the prowl for more buttons. Peden has done extensive research on Colt buttons. Yes, the gun manufacturer turned out hundreds of thousands of buttons. “Buttons along can make the woman or man!” Peden adds.
Peden is now the vice president of the club.
Another Shoreham resident, Lyn Blagden, has a love for antique clothing and fabrics. She calls it an “obsession” that began when she was growing up in New Jersey. There she found trunks full of very old clothing, wigs and purses in the attic. Those became costumes in school plays. Blagden took notice of the embroidery and pearl or glass buttons, some of which were on baby shoes and boots.
After moving to Vermont, she began going to rummage sales, used clothing stores and collecting buttons due to an interest in antiques. She heard about the Verd Mont Button Club from a neighbor and began learning about the many materials and uses of buttons through the ages.
Inheritance seems to be a trait many of the club members share. Club President Amy Larson, of Rutland, brought her grandmother’s collection of thousands upon thousands of buttons from Michigan eleven years ago. “I asked myself, ‘what am I going to do with all these buttons?’” Admitting she had very limited knowledge and was “totally unenthused” about button collecting while still being content to hold on to something that her grandmother cherished.
That unenthused attitude changed when a whole new world opened to her. Thus, being educated in history, culture, manmade and synthetic materials that she “probably never would have learned in school.” She also belongs to four button associations and reads countless books and articles on buttons in her extensive library. The passion for button collecting has reached the same plateau as her passion for gardening. She calls it, “A hobby to immerse myself in during the long Vermont winters.”
Another one of those flea markets, garage sale, auction junkies, Larson makes it clear she travels near and far to find pieces to add to her collection. Amy has no hesitation walking into an antique store or flea market, such as the annual Chelsea, Vermont Flea Market, and asking “Have any buttons?”
Her husband Ed, specializes in American military buttons, dating back to the Revolutionary War, along with transportation buttons, scouting, specialized group buttons, and unusual heritage style buttons.
One of his favorites is a Goodyear button (yes Goodyear Rubber) that was specifically designed for Civil War sharpshooters, known as Berdan’s Sharpshooters. These buttons were dark rubber with the Army Military Eagle, and would not shine in a bright sun or rustle in the bushes, thus giving away a sharpshooter’s position. There were only eight or so regiments in the Civil War. One such Regiment from Vermont was commanded by Gilbert Hart, of Wallingford. The library there is named after Hart. The sharpshooters were instrumental in turning back the Confederate attack at Cemetery Ridge at the Battle of Gettysburg. One colonial button came from a port in Maine, and another is from a British bagpiper in the Revolutionary War. An extensive collection of Vermont state seal buttons is on display at the Fair Haven Vermont State Welcome Center through Nov. 30.
Ed also developed a method of cleaning metal buttons that has been successful in restoring Gay Nineties metal buttons that have glass jewels embedded in them.
Out in Bridport, one club member considers herself more of a button enthusiast than a collector. Barbara Kivlin inherited some of her grandmother’s buttons and then picked up a few jars full at auctions over the years. “It was enjoyable to poke through them to appreciate the craftsmanship and detail, especially on the older buttons” she says. She was hooked after attending a presentation on horn buttons by the Verd Mont Club. After going home from that program, she began a winter long effort at sorting non-sewing buttons into categories, such as horn, shell, ceramic and plastic.
Barbara adds, “I may not be a true collector, but I do have my eye out for a ‘find’ when I visit antique stores.”
Another club member from Rutland, Sheri Ross, says she made her first quilt when she was 19 years old out of scraps of dresses made for her by her mother. Her mom made Sheri’s dresses all through her school years. The dahlia pattern was a favorite and Sheri says she added a button into the middle of each flower pattern. “Oh, if I had known at 19 what I know now about buttons, I could have had some fabulous ones.”
Martha Stewart did a piece on how to properly display collectable clothing buttons and there are hundreds of online videos of button collectors, collections, metal detection clubs finding buried buttons as well as how to clean buttons and preserve them. Verd Mont Button Club members are continually viewing these and more online resources as the internet age has made it easier to identify and classify unusual or previously hard to identify pieces.
The club maintains a very active profile on Facebook and invites those on social media to go to Verd Mont Button Club, where events, articles, meeting schedules, comments from other collectors around the country as well as videos and pictures of collections can be seen. Club contact information is also available on the site. The club meets once a month for eight months out of the year at different locations throughout Vermont. For the past several years the annual meeting as well as the club Christmas Holiday Party has been held at the Waybury Inn in East Middlebury.
Joan Janzen, of Essex Junction, went to a museum in Carson City, Nevada, as a child and saw a button collection. She started keeping buttons she found interesting and started to sew buttons on quilt corners. Janzen is a historian and said she finds the history of buttons most fascinating.
“Looking for them is so much fun,” she said. “The whole business if fun!”