Museum celebrates the pinback button

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CHICAGO — Long before tweets, the best way to deliver a pithy punch line was to say it with a button.

“We Want Beer,” demands a Prohibition-era button.

“Can the Can’t,” commands one from World War I.

“Ask Me About Free Cheese,” says another, circa 1970s.

At the Busy Beaver Button Co. in Chicago’s Logan Square, Christen Carter picks up a button from the 1920s, made of fabric painted with the face of a flapper. A slogan on a satin ribbon jutting from its base teases: “Did You Get Yours?”

“They’re just so beautiful,” Carter says lovingly.

Carter, a spunky 39-year-old with bright blue eyes and brown hair pulled back into a loose ponytail, is an unlikely champion of the pinback button, the collectors of which tend to be older, male and seekers of political paraphernalia.

But after 15 years of cranking out buttons at her factory, Carter is focusing her passion on preserving and showcasing what came before, an ambassador heralding buttons as historical signposts, tiny pop culture masterpieces, art writ small.

Earlier this month, as part of its 15th anniversary celebration, Busy Beaver hosted the grand opening of its pop culture button museum, a collection of about 1,000 buttons in four display cases mounted on the factory walls. It may be the first of its kind in the country, with featured buttons dating to 1896 falling under categories such as innovative, club, political, advertising, cause, music and social lubricators.

With the button museum, Carter hopes to help people see buttons as more than throwaway souvenirs. It’s a celebration of vintage buttons’ craftsmanship, the creative ways buttons were used to make a point, and the window buttons provide into their wearers’ bizarre interests.

“The thing we love about buttons is the communication and the expression,” Carter said. The grand opening drew hundreds of people, she said.

Spreading button appreciation has its hurdles. Besides their popularity in the punk scene, buttons haven’t been fashionable as clothing accessories since teens in the ’80s plastered them on their backpacks and jean jackets. They were, for a time, considered most uncool.

“Damn you, ‘Office Space!”‘ Carter said, jokingly shaking her first at the 1999 movie, a cult classic that branded buttons as ugly “flair.”

The museum gets around the “Office Space” effect because “we’re telling people you don’t have to wear them to appreciate them,” Carter said. Carter, for her part, wears a button every day. One of her current favorites is a turn-of-the-century button picturing a woman wearing a button.

If anyone’s going to bring buttons back, Carter is the person to do it. A pioneer of the small, independent button factory, Carter grew Busy Beaver from a one-woman operation in the bedroom of her college apartment to a 15-person company making 2 to 3 million buttons a year.

Busy Beaver’s clients include big names such as Missy Elliot, Bumble and Bumble, Threadless, Adidas, and Burger King, as well as regular people who want buttons made for their clubs, funerals, weddings or hobbies. Carter has kept the prices the same as they were when they started: $25 for 100 black-and-white 1-inch buttons, $30 for color. Yet her company is on the cutting edge, pushing itself to innovate: It recently started offering square buttons, and last year the company made news by offering custom gold-plated buttons ($52 for 50). Since 2002 Busy Beaver has commissioned artists across the country to design limited-edition buttons for its Button-O-Matic vending machines, which are scattered at sites throughout Chicago, including Empty Bottle, Lula’s Cafe and Reckless Records.

And so Busy Beaver finds itself creating history while also hunting down the gems of its predecessors. That’s unusual, said Ted Hake, founder of the auction company Hake’s Americana and Collectibles and author of “Price Guide to Collectible Pinback Buttons: 1896-1986.”

Hake, who has been holding auctions of pop culture memorabilia since 1968, said he had never heard of a button museum, save for the occasional Smithsonian exhibit of presidential campaign buttons, before Carter called him up a couple years ago seeking help on button research.

“It’s like she’s breaking new ground,” said Hake, who lives in York, Pa. “She seems to be one of the few people who owns a button-making company who has a love and appreciation for what came before.”

In 1995, Carter, who had recently graduated with a degree in comparative literature and film, put $400 on her parents’ credit card to buy her first hand-cranking button machine and paper cutter, and started a one-woman shop in the bedroom of her apartment in Bloomington, Ind. She called it Li’l One-inch Button Company, but later changed the name to Busy Beaver when she started producing other sizes.

Her first order was 500 buttons for the band Guided By Voices, whose members she met in London. Occasionally enlisting the help of friends or her mom, Carter made about 20,000 buttons her first year.

After a stint in San Francisco, Carter moved to Chicago for a boyfriend in 1998, operating her button factory out of the second bedroom of her Ukrainian Village apartment. The relationship didn’t last, but the company kept growing. She moved her factory to an art space, and then to the basement of her newly purchased home in Logan Square.

“It was pretty chaotic, with all of these people bustling around and shipping 60,000 buttons a week in this one-room basement,” remembers Alex White, 25, Busy Beaver’s marketing and commerce manager.

In August 2009, Carter moved her factory to its own storefront a few blocks from her home. As factories go, Busy Beaver doesn’t look like most. Sun-filled, with hardwood floors, an eco-friendly philosophy and charming details like round windows (they prefer to call them “button-shaped”), the factory is staffed by musicians, artists and other creative types, many of whom live blocks away in the hipsterland that is Logan Square.

Though the work is robotic — cut, press, pin — the imagination behind the buttons is not. White, a musician in the band White Mystery, started collecting buttons because they were cheap memorabilia of punk shows, but now she views them as time capsules. One of her favorites among her collection of 3,500, which she keeps in jewelry boxes because she likes to wear different ones every day, is a button from 1983 that reads “Disco Still Sucks.”

“It’s like a social history lesson,” said White, who lives in Lincoln Square. “I don’t think you could spread out 100 T-shirts and tell the story of American pop culture, but you can do that with buttons.”