Inside the World’s Only Button Museum

When it’s this cold outside, everyone is “buttoned up.”

But the term takes on a different meaning for a pair of siblings who run what’s believed to be the world’s only museum devoted exclusively to political and other custom buttons. 

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Christen Carter still has the very first button she ever bought: A small holographic-gold button featuring a cartoon drawing of Snoopy and Woodstock.

“When I was 12 I bought that button,” she says. “It was affordable. I really liked Snoopy.”

Little did she know then that it would one day be displayed in her very own button museum.

The Busy Beaver Button Museum in Logan Square is believed to be the world’s only museum devoted exclusively to pinback buttons: political buttons. Buttons featuring boy bands of yesteryear (Chicago’s Roney’s Boys is believed to have been the first band to promote itself with buttons in 1901) to the New Kids on the Block. Buttons about buttons, Chicago sports teams, schools, festivals and buildings.

The museum’s librarian, aided by university interns, tags buttons in the collection. About 4,500 are on display and 6,000 are cataloged online but thousands more – an estimated 25,000 – are part of the collection, and in storage.

The lineage of pinback political buttons in the U.S. traces back to the inauguration of President George Washington, an event so popular that an industrious entrepreneur made souvenir buttons modeled to look like the brass buttons hand-engraved with eagles that Washington wore on his coat.

But the U.S. didn’t really have a two-party system until the 1830s, so Carter says it wasn’t common for people to sport pins backing their favored candidate.

Plus, buttons – like one in the collection from 1864 with a photograph of President Abraham Lincoln affixed to a brass button – were relatively expensive to produce. Early incarnations kept artwork behind glass.

In the 1880s, inventors replaced glass with flat celluloid sheets. A patent from 1896 allowed button-makers to do away with a brass ring, by wrapping celluloid around the artwork.

Thus was born the button as we know it today.

Buttons may seem like a very specific item to collect; a niche. But bet your buttons that an event, quote, movement or memory – a state fair, a roller coaster ride, the “Smoking Stinks” motto, an election – is commemorated on a button.

“There are very few major things that happen without buttons and a lot of minor things that happen with buttons. It covers so much,” Carter says. “It’s a cool kind-of like person-level of history too. It’s not necessarily just big history book.”

Her own history, told through buttons, reaches from Snoopy to her teenage years, when she would buy buttons featuring her favorite bands: X, Adam and the Ants, the Sex Pistols, Punk Panther.

Eventually, she joined a punk band and moved to London, where she met a man who taught her to make buttons. When she moved back, she didn’t know what else to do. She knew a lot of American bands, though. So she started a button company.

Guided by Voices (“still one of my favorite bands,” she says) was her first customer.

In the early days, Carter would make buttons by hand: 10,000 a year, until her arms were so sore she’d pay her friends to help her make them.

“And then you have to put the pins in the backs of the buttons, so that would be like TV-watching and putting pins in buttons,” she says.

The company upgraded to electronic machines in 1999.

Since its founding in 1995, Busy Beaver has produced more than 42 million buttons, featuring some 90,000 designs (the company keeps one of each for its archives).

Visitors are welcome to stop on by to place an order (a sample costs $5, otherwise a minimum order requires a 50-button minimum; they’re offered in a variety of sizes and shapes), or to peruse the nonprofit museum that operates out of the same recently renovated building in Logan Square (admission is free, though donations are appreciated).

Carter, who co-curates the museum with her brother Joel Carter (he’s also the director of operations for the Busy Beaver Button Company), buys buttons at auctions, or at conventions, like the American Political Items Collectors events.

Others buttons come from donors, and their collections tell a life story: What issues they supported, events they attended, restaurants they ate at, thoughts on their minds.

“It’ll be their whole life of, from their teens to their ‘70s of just buttons that they’ve collected,” Carter says. “It really tells the story from the donor’s perspective of what was important to them.”

Joel and Christen were delighted Monday when they delved into a recently donated batch that included a blue button from President Barack Obama’s state senate campaign. They’ve been coveting one for years.

“Oh my gosh! That’s so awesome. I have not seen this one yet and we’ve been wanting this for a long time,” Carter says. “This is actually a pretty rare button.”

The Carters don’t cultivate buttons for their value – though some of the buttons are valuable – and they don’t keep the entire collection locked in drawers.

Joel and Christen each wear a button every day (on Monday, Joel wore a black button with a cat on it, plucked from his button drawers; Christen, who keeps her personal collection in a big bowl, wore one that promotes health care as a right, not a privilege).

It’s a way to promote the business, to send a message, to start a conversation.

“Always wear a button. Try to switch it up every day. You wouldn’t wear the same socks every day, so you keep a fresh button on,” Joel says. “I try to do sometimes a Madelaine Albright with her broaches so I’ll try to pick a topical button of the day.”

And in the ephemeral digital age, the siblings appreciate that buttons are the opposite: portable, wearable, affordable items capturing a moment in time.

“It’s one of the cool things, the permanence of buttons. There can be a TV commercial that airs at the Super Bowl, ya spend millions of dollars then forget about it the next day,” Joel Carter says. “Buttons hold on and they carry, they travel, they tell the story.” And they’re always on, they don’t require power.” 

More on this story

The button museum also currently has a display at the “Cards Against Humanity” headquarters. On Monday, it hosted a party for anyone who wanted to make buttons for the upcoming Women’s March. Find more community events here.

Follow Amanda Vinicky on Twitter: @AmandaVinicky

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