EUGENE, Ore. — A rich hoard of family history might be hidden in Mason jars and cookie tins that are full of buttons. They might include buttons from wedding gowns, uniforms or the dress a child wore on her first day of school. Sandi Olsen of rural Lane County calls such caches of buttons “accidental collections.” They reflect bygone days when thrifty homemakers snipped and saved buttons from garments that were headed for the rag bin.
But Olsen sees buttons as far more than a way to fasten shirts or add fashion flair to a sweater.
“They’re art, in miniature,” she said.
They’re also her passion, and one that she would like more people to discover. For more than 40 years, she has collected buttons methodically, eclectically — and almost daily.
Her buttons are wooden, ceramic, bone, cloth, metal, glass, enamel, handmade, factory-made, old, new, local and global. They range from dazzling 18th-century showpieces larger than dollar coins to tiny seed pearl buttons that might adorn an infant’s christening gown.
Many of them are neatly affixed to sheets of paper, with 25 to 50 a sheet. The paper sheets are stored in plastic sleeves and kept in deep, oak wall filing cabinets, portable storage units, boxes and bowls in Olsen’s two-room hobby suite.
Does she have thousands of buttons?
A little smile plays across Olsen’s lips in reply.
Tens of thousands?
She raises an eyebrow, and husband Jack, a retired teacher and rhododendron hybridist, breaks in confidently.
“I’d say she has a million in here,” he said. “Every day, another package arrives.”
The soft-spoken Sandi Olsen does not contradict him. Her smile grows imperceptibly.
“I’ve never been able to specialize,” she explains.
With the eye of a born artist, she arranges patterns and themes of buttons into frames, many of them displayed on the walls of her house. Modestly tucked behind those frames are the blue and red ribbons she’s won for artistically showcasing a particular theme, material or era, in buttons.
Her collection is massive and organized.
On a recent afternoon, she knew exactly where to find the red, white and blue binder containing her first button purchase: commemorative buttons to mark the nation’s 1976 bicentennial celebration.
Soon afterward, she joined the Oregon Button Society.
“I was the baby of the club,” she said. “Now I’m its oldest member.”
For the past 10 years, she has been the president of the Eugene Button Club, whose members live throughout Lane County. They are a small but dedicated group who celebrate the virtually infinite varieties of buttons that evolved more than 1,000 years ago from those first practical objects that kept clothes securely fastened against the elements.
AN AFFORDABLE HOBBY
As collectibles go, buttons are on the humble side, compared to coins or stamps.
For instance, the British Guiana one-cent Black on Magenta stamp — once in the collection of a 12-year-old boy — sold in 2014 for a record $9.5 million.
The most valuable button known in the United States is a George Washington inaugural button, which can fetch several thousand dollars. Olsen does not own the original, but she has a brass reproduction.
The real treasure in button collecting, she said, is the collateral education it provides in history, art, fashion and design.
For instance, she displays an ornate 18th-century button about the size of an Olympic medal. It has a blue glass cabochon center, set with a rhinestone and surrounded by mother-of-pearl that has been carved to look like a pleated rosette. It resembles a blue ribbon trophy.
A button to hold a ladies’ evening gown?
“No!” Olsen said, with the delight of someone imparting unusual information, as she pulls a book from her library and flips it open to an 18th-century etching of a dandyish young man. He is preening as he shows off his fancy vest to a young lady. Its buttons are so shiny, a young lady is shielding her eyes from their garish light.
When asked to show her favorite button, she grows solemn as she pulls out a set of engraved metal buttons. They were issued in commemorate of the 9/11 terrorist attack.
The meaning behind the buttons makes them valuable, she said, but button collecting in general is very much a “value-in-the-eye-of-the beholder” sort of hobby.
Although he doesn’t collect buttons, Jack Olsen appreciates and supports his wife’s interest. He has his own favorite.
“I like this one best,” he said, pulling out a framed display of about 30 buttons of metals and ceramics. Each features the profiles and stylized figures of mythic women.
The couple, who met on a blind date, have been married for 54 years. She is a Eugene native and South Eugene High School graduate. He graduated from Willamette High School and was a high school physical education teacher and coach at Marist, Lowell and Sutherlin.
Their two-story house on a forested hillside is surrounded by rhododendrons, many of them hybrids that Jack Olsen developed in greenhouses on the property.
The couple has four adult children who all live in Oregon.
In addition to collecting buttons, Sandi Olsen spins yarn and is a weaver, who “enjoys just about every craft.” She even sang in a barbershop quartet.
Olsen and the other members of the Oregon Button Society would like more people to discover the hobby of button collection and display.
Olsen said she still enjoys going on button-hunting expeditions with friends to antique stores, thrift shops and estate sales.
It’s an affordable treasure hunt — and potentially profitable.
For instance, tapestries and mosaics made primarily of inexpensive resin buttons fetch a good price on online craft sites such as Etsy. The buttons for making such crafts are plentiful, often found in thrift stores and sold by the pound online for a few dollars.
And both the Oregon Button Society and the National Button Society have well-designed websites to guide potential collectors and crafters and to put them in touch with experts.
Information from: The Register-Guard, http://www.registerguard.com