STEUBEN — Johanna Billings likes to sort and put things in order. As a child, she happily separated the red, green, yellow and other M&Ms before popping them in her mouth. She loved the springy SuperBalls, dividing them by size, color and pattern. She and her father spent time together sifting through “lots” of loose stamps for his collection.
So when Johanna spied an old tin of vintage buttons at the Casa Marina estate sale in Winter Harbor in 2018, the working Maine journalist/photographer saw the pleasure of combing through the contents and delving into their origins online as a relaxing pastime. Two years later, that impulse buy has yielded a button collection totaling 228,525.
Step into Johanna and Sean Billings’ two-bay garage, where the couple store much of their respective collections. Cheez-It barrels, pickle jars, salt shakers and other clear receptacles brimming with buttons dwell in every corner and cranny. They compete for space with Sean’s John Deere 2720 and three other tractors. Not to mention many other diverse collectibles and novelties ranging from stuffed soccer balls to utility pole insulators.
Like many Maine garages, there’s no room for the couple’s cars.
Johanna’s favorite buttons are the glass, twinkle and shell ones that glint and shimmer in the warm afternoon sunlight spilling into the garage. On a worktable, she shakes out some lustrous mother-of-pearl buttons once commonly used to fasten men’s trousers, dress shirts and other garments. They are made from the inner, iridescent surface of pearl-producing mollusks like abalone, conch, mussels and oysters. A mix of minerals is secreted and forms a protective coating inside the shell.
Pearl buttons vary in hue from creamy white to smoky gray and bronze.
“The more I sort, and the more I handle them, the more I learn. I am training myself to look for all those details,” explained Johanna, noting real pearl buttons’ faces are cold to the touch, unlike the fake ones. “There are a lot that look like mother-of-pearl, but are not.”
She’s also partial to twinkles. The metal buttons are intricately patterned and pierced, revealing a reflective backing. They were the “bling” of their day, button experts say.
In this day and age, buttoning up takes too much time and the minutes spent fumbling are better used for other pressing tasks. But buttons once were essential in American households. Children learned to button and unbutton at an early age. Cries of “I lost a button!” were commonly heard.
Americans of a certain age may recall being given their mother’s button box to amuse themselves on a sick day home from school. For a while, some were content to pore over the loose buttons, finding matches and marveling over the different shades and shapes.
A curved shell, used more as an ornament than a fastener, is the earliest known button discovered at Mohenjo-daro in Pakistan’s Indus River Valley. It dates from dates from 3300-1300 BC.
In the Middle Ages, buttons allowed clothes to follow and accentuate the body’s lines. The arm, say, or the bosom. Garments were made to fit snugly like a glove.
Through the ages, the fasteners have taken myriad forms, but the most common were mounted on a pierced knob or shaft called the shank. Thread is run through the shank’s hole to attach the button to fabric. Shanks were made in different shapes from boxes to turrets.
In case a gentleman had to draw his sword, men’s jackets always buttoned left over right so the weapon’s handle didn’t catch in the opening. Women’s garments buttoned right over left. The custom persists in some menswear today.
In France, a war broke out over buttons — La Guerre des Boutons — between tailors and the Button Makers Guild. The former were getting away with using tightly wound balls of thread instead of button makers’ finely crafted fasteners. The guild won and the tailors were fined. The fight inspired a 1962 French movie.
In Colonial times, and running through the Great Depression, Americans never threw buttons away. They were cut off worn or ruined clothes and were salted away for sewing onto another garment someday.
Johanna doesn’t sew, but she plays with buttons as children once did. As a journalist, she is spurred to dig into their past and historical context. Maybe it’s a Bakelite dial telephone, which falls into the so-called “realistics” family, or the solid-colored “house dress buttons” salvaged from the comfortable gowns worn for doing domestic chores in the 1950s and 1960s.
“I can hold conversations,” Johanna says, referring to her button-sorting. Or, “play my ‘Wheel of Fortune’ puzzles [Last year, she actually auditioned twice for the ABC game show] and see if I can beat the contestants.”
Button-collecting, Johanna adds, is an inexpensive hobby. For a few bucks, she can acquire a discarded jar of odds and ends and have fun finding a hard-to-find celluloid or floraform button in the mix.
Besides buttons, these treasure hunts often yield an intriguing array of “wacky, weird and fun things” such as pins, pills, pennies, poker chips, nails, needles, screws, safety pins, washers, hooks, snaps and straps.
“It’s 10 dollars worth of entertainment,” she said. “But it’s also a different part of history because you are looking at how people dressed and fashioned things.”
In the near future, Johanna plans to open a button barn where visitors can see and learn about buttons or search for a match for one that went missing from a favorite coat or blouse years ago. A scoopful of buttons would cost a buck.
Meanwhile, she and Sean sell some of their collectibles at 1A Relics (444 Bangor Road, Ellsworth) and Back in the Good Old Days (4 Park St., Cherryfield). Some of her buttons can also be seen at jsbillingsphoto.com.