Button Collector: Deb Layman has thousands, and there are many more to find 2010.01.27

Written by David Green.


Collecting is never a simple matter for Deborah Layman. She can’t merely buy the antiques she likes; she has to really understand the story behind them.buttons.deb.jpg

“My problem is, once I start collecting, I have to know everything about it,” she said.

That’s a big problem when it comes to her chief collection: buttons.

“There’s always something to learn, always new information,” said the Fayette resident. “It is fascinating.”

Deborah sold buttons long before she collected buttons.

“I started collecting antiques in 1968, the year I got out of high school.”

Her boyfriend’s mother was an antique dealer and Deborah soon got the bug. Years later, at an estate sale in her home state of Missouri, she bought the Collectors Encyclopedia of Buttons and found a business card inside listing the president of the state’s button collector group.

Deborah gave her a call and was invited over to take a look at the woman’s collection. It was enormous, with thousands of pounds of buttons, and it was for sale.

“Had I known then what I know now, I would have bought the entire collection.”

But she still had the antique store and a child at home, so it didn’t seem like the time for a major investment.

Buttons were still on her mind, however,  and her interest grew when she learned that one of her customers was a member of the National Button Society.

“It just progressed from that to this,” Deborah said.

“This” is a rather massive and growing collection stored in two rooms of her house. The organizational chores alone are daunting.

“You really don’t want to start this hobby until your kids are gone,” she said. “You don’t have the time, you don’t have the money.”

Buttons are stored on sheets of cardboard, arranged by style or color or material or age or size or...there are so many classifications when it comes to creating an official card of buttons for show or competitions.

Some collectors might specialize in a particular classification of button, but not Deborah, although she does have a fondness for one kind.

“I like everything,” she said, “but my favorite is black glass. I probably have more of them than anything else.”

Within the category of black glass comes a large variety of characteristics—made before 1918, number of holes, pictorial designs, size (determined with a metal gauge), swirlbacks (a pattern on the back side made during production), set in metal, and on and on.

Black glass might be her favorite and most popular button, but she still has much to learn.

“I’m still a novice collector in black glass,” Deborah said.

In her younger days of button collecting, Deborah was a dealer as well as a collector, but she says she can’t buy enough to serve as a dealer. Dealers often need to invest in the purchase of an established collection.

“There’s a good collection on sale now for a quarter million dollars and another one for $100,000,” Deborah said.

That’s quite beyond her price range, but she did once buy a collection from a woman who decided to get out of collecting. Fifty containers moved from Indiana to Fayette.

Now the woman is back to collecting buttons again.

“It gave her a lot more room in her house,” Deborah said. “Actually I could use some more room.”

She sells a few buttons on eBay—especially duplicates—and she’s been parting ways with her small metal button collection just to make room for future acquisitions.

Most of her purchases are made at state and national shows, where dealers begin arriving before the actual show gets underway.

Between visiting dealers and working at shows—she’s the national custodian for display racks and library materials, overseeing the award presentations in Michigan, assists with judging, etc.—shows are busy times.

“I’ve been known not to leave the hotel for eight days,” she said, but she’s not complaining. “I plan on going until I’m not able to go anymore.”

“When you get as far into collecting as I am, the button show is the best place to buy, along with eBay,” Deborah said.

She still pokes around antique shops and attends some estate sales because not all the good buttons have found their way into someone’s collection.

She remembers paying $12 for a jar of buttons that included one worth more than a hundred.

“I just wanted a large red glass button,” she said.

When she was still a button dealer living in Missouri, she once paid $50 for a selection of buttons at a sale. Included was a string of 22 black glass buttons which she discovered later were a much rarer blue cobalt.

She showed them to another dealer and asked how much she should charge for them.

“It’s a good thing there was a couch there,” Deborah said, because her friend quickly needed a seat.

If she were an established dealer, they could fetch $300 each.

Deborah isn’t concerned only with her own collection. She’s also grooming a granddaughter to become a collector. At age 10, Madison has become adept at articulating why a particular button is noteworthy. She even beat Deborah out of an award at a show.

Deborah’s knowledge continues to grow, but oddly enough, she falls short in one facet of buttons.

“I can’t sew a button on,” she said. “If my husband loses a button off a shirt, I have to take it somewhere.”


Collectors show off their stuff at competitions

In the world of button collecting, the national show is where everyone gets to flaunt their finds and compete for awards.

The effort leading up to that day of competition is demanding as collectors pore over the list of classifications and choose what to enter. Then comes the long process of sorting through the collection and maybe acquiring something new.

“When you decide what you want to do, it sometimes takes two or three years to come up with a good presentation,” Deborah Layman said.

For example, there’s a division for old buttons (pre-1918) and another for modern and vintage.

Within each division are sections for celluloid buttons, glass buttons, horn buttons, ceramic buttons, metal buttons, etc.

Within each section are numerous classifications and sub-classifications. Within the section for metal buttons, for example, are classes for aluminum, pewter, silver, steel, etc.

Within the steel class are sub-classes for blued, cut and riveted, engraved, stamped, etc.

Also within the metal section are classes for buttons with decorative finishes and other embellishments.

An entry card (or tray, as they’re also called) might include 35 buttons that all meet the requirements for the class, but also show great variety within the class.

Other sections don’t require a particular material, but instead focus on buttons with snowflake patterns or buttons showing flower designs.

Two hundred awards are given at the national convention, plus several sponsored awards that even have some prize money attached.

Deborah picks up one of her cards from a past contest to explain how a judge works: Section 6, Black Glass; Class 4, Decorative Finishes; Sub-Class 3, Painted.

Her cards is of mixed sizes of buttons and an entry consists of 35 buttons—15 large, 15 small and five of the entrant’s choice.

“Then we’re going to look for pictorials,” she said.

There should be a representative of each of the four groups: human, animal, plant, object.

“Then we’ve got shapes: oval, convex and diamond.”

Depending on how the award was written, the judge might have looked for representation of more than one color of paint.

Deborah didn’t win an award for the card since her entry was the only one, but judges congratulated her on “completing this daunting task.”

Points are given for each category and a tie is broken by a judge’s discretion, perhaps by looking for rarer entries on the card.

“I can tell you from experience that sometimes it’s really hard to determine a winner,” Deborah said.

She prefers to work with a more experienced senior judge. She’s competed at the national level only for the past five years.

Some of her cards show a small red dot next to a button, meaning they were flagged for an error. It’s called “measling” and Deborah says she’s great at getting measled.

“I entered 22 cards in the last national competition,” she said. “It’s easy to get mixed up.

“A lot of people don’t like to compete because measling hurts their feelings. For me it’s OK. It’s a good way to learn.”

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