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Antique Collectible

Rose Mary
By Rosemary McKittrick
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George Washington button. Sold for $1,375. Photo courtesy of Page Auctioneers
“When you come across an old cookie tin full of buttons, garter hooks, pins, and thread, chances are you’re not looking at any great buttons,” says Margaret McBride.

She should know. For the last four years she and her husband Phil, have been conducting three to four button auctions every year at Page Auctioneers in Batavia, N.Y. The couple deals with buyers and buttons from all over the world.

“The valuable buttons are the ones that make you stop and take a second look,” says McBride. “Sometimes you’ll find them on a string in the attic, but rarely in a cookie tin. That’s usually just somebody’s button junk. The better buttons are brass, glass, porcelain, ceramic and metal. Some have pictures. But, the great ones will always be distinctive.”

Collecting buttons in America became really popular in the 1860s. Young women would put together “charm strings” of at least 999 different buttons.

According to one tradition, by the time a girl reached the end of her string, so to speak, her suitor would come along with one last button, complete the string, and claim her as his bride.

One of the common buttons you’d see on her string was called a Tingue. It seems that New York state senator John H. Tingue challenged three of his friends to make a string of 2,500 buttons in 30 days, for a reward of $50. The girls went beyond Tingue’s expectations and put together a string of 2,700.

Local newspapers picked up the story but confused the details, reporting that Tingue would pay $50 to any young woman with a 2,500 string of buttons.

Tingue was swamped with 90,000 buttons. All kinds, from painted tin, cameo, and pewter, to brass, glass, and mother-of-pearl. One string weighed 14 pounds.

The buttons ended up in the Connecticut State Historical Museum. Years later, collectors sorted through the buttons and named the glass and foil decorated examples after Tingue.

Who collects? There are two general types of collectors in the button field, “The 80- year-olds, who’ve been collecting since the 1940s, and the younger collectors who are just getting started,” says McBride.

On April 4 and 5, 1998, Page Auctioneers sold 1,300 lots of buttons. The sale stemmed mainly from the estate of Velma Bushell, a New York collector who had attended many Page Auction button sales.

The top lot was an 18th century molded wax button of a woman and cherub on striped fabric set in copper that sold for $4,455.

“This was a Van Gogh in the button world,” says McBride.

Other lots included an oriental zodiac set carved in bone, $1,100. A mosaic button of castle ruins set in copper, $3,410. A picture button entitled “Boy in a Boat,” $1,650. A U.S. Confederate button, $1,012.

“Button varieties are endless,” says McBride. “People like the smallness of them and the history.”

The older the better rule applies, and you won’t generally see many buttons made before the 18th century. Condition is important.

Flaking and crumbling destroys value. “It’s the type of collectible where the more buttons you see, the more you’ll see the difference,” says McBride.

For more information on collecting buttons, write to Lois Pool at The National Button Society, 2733 Juno Place, Akron, Ohio 44333.

Q. I have been collecting music boxes since I was a little girl. I’m 62 now. Every one I have is different and they all play. Any information you could provide would be greatly appreciated? Jacky Basl, Pittsburgh.

A. The oldest music boxes date back to the late-18th century when watchmakers, many from Switzerland, began placing small spring-powered musical movements in watches, snuffboxes, and anywhere they might fit.

The value of most music boxes is determined by their sound. How richly does it play its tunes? Condition and beauty of the case follow close behind.

Some of the most collectible music boxes today are those produced right before the phonograph. They were expensive back then, and have remained costly to purchase today.

The early parlor music boxes contained steel sound elements that produced 80-to-100 notes. As music boxes became more elaborate, they could yield up to 400 notes.
Mint condition is most desirable with music boxes. Anything less decreases the value.

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