Lise McIntyre of Bonner Springs, Kan., has collected antique and vintage buttons for 24 years and estimates her current collection at more than 10,000. But it's not just sitting in display cases in her house. McIntyre created the Traveling Button Museum (www.travelingbuttonmuseum.com), which consists of displays about the history and art of buttons. By invitation, she takes her exhibit to various groups and clubs, including button clubs. She answers questions about how her collection formed and shares her button knowledge:
Q: Where did the idea of a traveling museum come from?
A: It was not my original idea. I had a dream of buying a beautiful Victorian home, and my husband and I would live in the upstairs, and the buttons would have the full run of the downstairs for visitors to enjoy and see fully what buttons can be: the workmanship, the craftsmanship, the artistry.
I could not sell my husband on that idea. I worked him over 50 different ways, and I could not make him see the beauty of it. I put that dream aside, but dreams don't die. So I began to build the traveling museum.
Q: When in your life did you first start to notice buttons?
A: I played with buttons when I was a little girl. My grandmother … had a button tin, and on rainy days she would get it out, and let my brother and me play with the buttons.
Then as an adult, about 24 years ago, I lived in Leon, Iowa, and I bought a tin of buttons at a garage sale. I was going to sell them to an antique dealer and make a few bucks. I spread them out all over my dining room table and invited my neighbor over to look at them. She walked all around the table looking at them and said, "I think there's a button club here."
I had never heard of a button club, and to myself I thought: "What do these people do? Sit around looking at buttons all day?" But I was polite, and I tracked down the head of the local button club and visited her. She was elderly and homebound, and she had [trays of] buttons stacked on her buffet, the dining room table, every chair. I had never seen such beautiful things, or known that they could be collected and organized in a way that revealed their charm and history. By the time I left her house, I was changed.
Q: How are your displays organized?
A: Some are by material: glass, bone, Bakelite, wood, celluloid, ceramic, rubber. Others are by area of interest. No matter what you are into — birds, flowers, gods and goddesses from classical mythology — there are buttons depicting that.
Q: Do you make a living selling buttons?
A: No. Once I get a button, it's hard for me to let go of it.
Q: Have you ever had an "Antiques Roadshow" moment where you bought something cheap that turned out to be valuable?
A: Yes. Once I had gone to an antique store in Des Moines, and I looked at everything this one lady had on display, and I had seen them all before. So I asked if she had any other buttons. She pulled out a shoe box, and I flipped through it and saw what looked like a rare button, but she had 31 of them. I bought one for a dollar and a half. I showed it to a button-collecting friend, and she got so excited she dropped it. So I went back and bought the rest. At the time they were worth $60 each, and they are worth more now. I sold three but couldn't bear to part with the rest.
Q: What are they called?
A: Amber tingues. They have a base of amber glass with a gold flashing set in the middle, and on top of that is red-flashed glass.
Q: When were buttons invented?
A: They are more recent than people think. There were buttonlike objects on clothing as far back as the Greeks and Romans, but they were purely decorative. It was during the Middle Ages that someone came up with the idea of the buttonhole. He points out that it wasn't a scientific or technical breakthrough but a leap of imagination.
To find button clubs, go to NationalButton Society.org.