• Steven Heller

The Daily Heller: Buttonmania!

Buttons with pin backs were essential pop culture apparel long before many of you were born. They were used to identify, advertise, protest, show allegiance and entertain. Buttons represented commerce, politics, religion, ideology and just about anything that society threw out in the public sphere. They were awards and rewards, fads and fancies. As a young politically minded kid, I'd scoop them up from campaign offices and hawkers on streets and in storefronts. As a slightly older hippie, I'd frequent the various button shops in the East and West Village. I'd cover my army surplus jacket with them, adding an extra few pounds to the garment. There was no shortage of buttons to be had. I loved the lenticular ones that showed two messages when rocked back and forth. My most treasured button was given to me by John F. Kennedy during his primary election campaign. During the subsequent presidential election, I would go to Nixon headquarters, take handfuls of "Nixon's The One" pins and quickly dispose of them in garbage cans nearby.


I still have a few antique buttons I've collected over the years, but most were thrown out long ago. This is why I'm so glad to have Button Power (Princeton Architectural Press) by Christen Carter and Ted Hake. This is an orgy of button love, including chapters on Arts, Campaigns, Nature, People, Places, War and Anti-war, and more, more, more. Two essays provide history and context. One is a brief history of the Pin-Back button; the other is Randolfe Wicker's recollection of his seminal store, Underground Uplift Unlimited, the primary outlet in the Hippie Sixties. In fact, I knew Randy and his partner back then, and sometimes wondered what happened to him (I seem to recall that when buttons lost favor, his shop became a lighting store).



We all have tasted the fruit of and felt the pin-prick of buttons. Nonetheless, I asked Carter, founder of the popular Chicago-based Busy Beaver Button Company (where I've ordered buttons for various celebrations) and chief tour-giver of the Button Museum, what's so special about them. She responded: "There’s something about them being an intentional object, as in thoughtful with the design, the messaging and getting them made for a specific reason. And then, this object calls attention to itself and the wearer. Plus, they are shareable because they are created in multiples and accessible ([they] cost pennies!). There’s a gift aspect of the object itself and of the idea expressed on the button. But ultimately I think the charm is how buttons connect people through expressing the things we care about." He said to beware: His answer might be too serious. But it sounds good to me. "It’s kinda a chicken and the egg situation, but since buttons create community … buttons can be aspirational."


Along those lines, they can also be confrontational, as was my personal favorite button. Although I don't see it in the book, it read, "I Am An Enemy of the People." My parents hated it.













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