A whole room for her buttons
By ELIZABETH BETTENDORF
Published March 28, 2007
If museum curators ever saw Dean Wilkerson's button room, they might well saw off the side of her yellow duplex and ship it straight to the Smithsonian.
Wilkerson, a blue-eyed Southerner just shy of her 80th birthday, can't get enough buttons. With the aplomb of a librarian, she buys, mounts, catalogs by subject and files them in rows of filing cabinets and clear plastic drawers.
"I just love buttons - they have such character!" Wilkerson explained one spring afternoon in the small room of her tidy house that she has devoted solely to her massive collection. Though Wilkerson's never officially counted, it may well number in the hundreds of thousands.
"They're art, they're history, they're beautiful - and many have been with us mankind a very long time."
Her own collection began in 1986 with an 1890s metal flower button, known as a "perfume button," cleverly designed so that its wearer could douse the velvet back with a favorite scent.
"People didn't smell so good then," she confides with a laugh.
With that first flower button, Wilkerson's interest was piqued. She met a respected collector, Flora Overstedt, who lived just north of Orlando and who introduced her to every button type and material.
Wilkerson read widely on the subject - she converted a large closet in her button room to books on buttons - and attended button shows and began collecting herself.
Born in Success, Ark., she spent much of her life in Memphis and still dresses with the well-heeled fashion sense of someone born and bred in the American South. She's read prolifically since childhood, spent years working for Dun & Bradstreet and amassed her collection with the focus of someone who had been at it for decades.
She has concentrated on the buttons of men and women who built America: firefighters, railroad workers, police, politicians and civil servants. She collected the fine couture buttons worn by women in the 1920s, and the delicate, gem-like waistcoat buttons worn by gentlemen of centuries past. Her collection includes varieties and historic specimens far too expansive to name in one sitting, but she takes out a few thousand highlights for visitors, categorized and elegantly displayed on cardboard squares that she takes to button shows.
The best, of course, are the ones that catch the eye in the light, or that have stories that go with them, or are just crazy, like the ones shaped like a piano or cherries or 1960s pop symbols.
She points to her exquisite "moonglow" buttons, glass-on-glass varieties in rich colors that reflect the sea and sky and were worn by fashionable women in the 1860s. There are old ivory buttons, including two carved in what appeared to be primitive shapes of a boat and fish, decorated in delicate ink and crafted hundreds of years ago by Eskimos on a fishing expedition.
She owns unique Chinese buttons, jewel-toned buttons made of Bakelite, a small collection of turtle-shaped buttons, buttons meant to resemble tortoise shells, and wooden novelty buttons from the mid-20th century including one shaped like a Scottie dog. She collects Wedgwood-style buttons that look like cameos, but actually depict interesting sites and events. She pulls out an assortment of steel buttons decorated with the architectural hot spots of their time: Athenian ruins, Scotland's Bellmore Castle, the Swiss Alps, and the Isle of Elba, where Napoleon Bonaparte was forced into exile.
"Worn on opera clothes," she explained, holding up the big cardboard square of buttons to her large magnifying glass.
Wilkerson collects with such a passion that she can't even tell you her favorites. She just pulls out more interesting specimens to show you: black glass buttons and buttons with pictures of horses, birds and women's heads. She owns antique black mourning buttons, in three varieties, basic to fancy, intended to accompany the accepted mourning stages over a year's time.
Some stray far from the utilitarian, like her pewter animal buttons that look more like keepsakes that might dangle from a Southern belle's charm bracelet.
She has an amazing collection of buttons that depict the crests of schools, colleges, universities, "even livery crests," she adds. There are enamel buttons from France and Italy, and Goodyear rubber buttons from 1849 and 1851, meant to be washed with one's good clothes, she notes, "rather than taken off and sewn back on like most buttons."
Her husband, Charles Wilkerson, 79, a retired bank president who now volunteers at Florida Hospital Zephyrhills, particularly admires what's known as the Golden Age buttons, worn on men's pockets and meant to look like pocket-watch cases. A proficient family history researcher, he jokes that he "collects" ancestors.
"Oh, I think it's great," he said of his wife's button collection. "Collections are important because they allow people to collect and pursue what they like and enjoy."
Wilkerson is the mother of five girls, has 14 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren, all of whom she is fiercely proud. She has many hobbies and interests, including water aerobics, world travel, reading and cooking ("I still love to clip recipes from the newspaper!") and is planning a family reunion. From 2002 to 2004 she served as the president of the Florida State Button Society.
Wilkerson estimates that she spends at least two hours a week working on her collection, usually in her button room at a round, cloth-covered table beneath a bright halogen light.
She attends button shows whenever she can, and buys directly from avid button collectors like herself, never over the Internet.
"The people involved in this are wonderful," she says, explaining why she prefers to buy in person.
Her advice to anyone wanting to start a collection - of anything:
"Whatever subject you choose, be organized and knowledgeable."Elizabeth Bettendorf can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Want to join?
The Bay Area Button Club, which includes Pasco, Hernando, Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, meets at 9:30 a.m. the fourth Monday of every month at Pinellas Park Chamber of Commerce, 5851 Park Blvd. For information, contact Karen Lavigne, president, at (727) 526-6695.