People don’t often notice buttons until they fall off, or when they loosen and droop on a favorite winter coat, or burst from their waistband after a big bowl of pasta. Some go into a junk drawer with paper clips and old batteries, others to the trash can.
Karen Finkbiner notices every button.
“Someone said buttons hold things together, and that’s the way I like to think of them," Finkbiner, 64, said on a recent morning outside her home in Spring City, Chester County.
The Pennsylvania State Button Society, of which Finkbiner is president, is feeling a bit frayed these days, what with the cancellation of its spring show in Berks County due to the coronavirus — not to mention an alleged theft of as much as $13,000 in club funds by one of its longtime members.
The biannual shows, with a dozen or so vendors and as many as 100 attendees who buy, sell, and trade, “basically pay for themselves,” Finkbiner said. “We don’t really make any money."
The National Button Society, founded in 1938, is still planning to hold its national convention in Springfield, Ill., in August. The Pennsylvania State Button Society is hoping to have its fall show in October at a Pittsburgh hotel. The membership of the Pennsylvania group, which goes back to 1947, has dropped over the years, from as many as 300 a few decades ago to 115 today. Dues are about $15 a year.
Under the State Button Society umbrella are seven smaller clubs, including Finkbiner’s local — the Pennsylvania Dutch Button Club. Philadelphia’s branch, the Betsy Ross Button Club, folded.
Most button club members are women, and anyone under 50 is a youngster. Finkbiner said the 20 or so male members are drawn in by military buttons, and many search Pennsylvania battlefields and other historical areas for the holy grail, George Washington inaugural buttons, which can sell for thousands of dollars.
Younger members said buttons hold their families together.
“I was really going to meetings and events before I was born,” said Erin Shevock, 32, a Pittsburgh resident. “We have always been a part of it. My mother and her mother and her mother’s mother. My mother used to take me along to the shows as a child, but now it’s a way for me to spend time with her and my grandmother.”
Finkbiner, who has held many titles in the Pennsylvania State Button Society, became president in last fall’s election. After the books were handed over from the previous treasurer to a new one, many discrepancies were found. All told, Finkbiner said, as much as $13,000 could be missing from their account.
The Inquirer is not identifying the club’s previous treasurer because she has not been charged with a crime, but police in North Cornwall Township, Lebanon County, where she lives, are aware of the issue and are “gathering information,” a spokesperson said. The woman, Finkbiner said, is elderly and in poor health.
“It’s all just very, very sad,” she said.
In light of the losses, a GoFundMe account was created to help the Pennsylvania State Button Society stay afloat. So far, it has raised $1,930, many of the donations coming from other button clubs across the country.
“The Pa. State Button Society has been around for 73 years, and we intend on keeping it around for another 73 more," the club’s GoFundMe effort states.
As a child, Finkbiner was introduced to buttons by a grandmother, and now, she said, she has “millions” of them, stored in an entire button room in her home. She finds them at shows and antique shops, but she also scours Walmart. Many are ornamental, never to be sewn onto a shirt, and others were made specifically for shoe straps a century ago. To be a true button, it must have either a “shank" protruding from the back or holes, for sewing. Buttons with pins on the back, such as old political buttons, are called “pinbacks,” Finkbiner said. They’re not considered true buttons and she doesn’t collect them, or buckles.
“Please, this is crazy enough,” she said. “That would require a whole extra room.”
Finkbiner turns her buttons into displays, called “trays,” that are presented for awards at the society’s shows. One tray featured lighthouses, another pears. That won second place in a competition.
"Not only do I have pears, but I have pairs of pears,” she said, pointing to one button. "I have trays of cats, trays of dogs, trays of horses. "
One tray of “kaleidoscope buttons” Finkbiner designed has 42 “kaleidoscope buttons” — glassy and multicolored, like jewels — in a diamond pattern. She’s been itching to replace one of them with a rarer button, to make the tray better.
“I’m missing the golden button,” she said. “It’s oval, like an egg.”
She found one for $500 and balked, but she’s been contemplating another she saw for about $200.
“I almost bought it," she added.
Finkbiner has two sons and two grandsons — not ideal for passing down the button heritage — but she said they’ve dabbled.
“They all have button trays,” she said. “They know buttons.”