LOGAN SQUARE — The world’s only dedicated button museum is located right here in Chicago, and it’s heading for an expansion in Logan Square.
To be clear, it's all about the pin-backed buttons, often emblazoned with political slogans, band names or other motifs.
The Busy Beaver Button Museum at 3279 W. Armitage currently has around 10,000 of them on display, but, according to Busy Beaver owner and Logan Square resident Christen Carter, it’s the story behind each button that makes the museum such a draw.
“We’re not interested in the value, more about how it communicates an idea of the time,” she said. “The button is a larger idea distilled into a small space, like a [news] headline. They tell a rich story.”
The Future Button Museum
For now, the buttons are displayed along Busy Beaver’s office walls, but an upcoming move — in all likelihood to a space less than a block west on Armitage Avenue — would give the museum space to grow move in its own room, dedicated entirely to displaying buttons.
It’s a much needed expasion for the Busy Beaver Button Co., which has grown each year since the shop opened in Logan Square in 2010. The button-makers produced 3.5 million buttons last year, Carter said, up from around 10,000 buttons their first year.
According to one Busy Beaver employee, a single worker can produce about 2,200 buttons in a single day at full speed. But the highest number made in the shop in one day is 6,500.
Even now, only a sixth of the total button museum buttons are currently displayed on the shop walls, listed under categories like, “Chicago,” “Self-Referential,” "Ask Me," “Political” and “Advertising,” among others.
In the basement, more button-making stations, buttons and stacks upon stacks of inventory boxes fill the space — every surface of the small shop is filled with button materials, order forms and manufacturing equipment alongside a crew of around 20 workers who crank out buttons day in and day out.
“We’re really busting at the seams,” Carter said.
A Brief History of Buttons
You could say that buttons are the original social media.
The first button appeared on the sleeve of George Washington’s inaugural jacket, and on those of his supporters in 1789. But they really became a campaign must-have around 1828, when the country’s two-party system began. From that point on, they were worn by politicians ranging from Franklin Pierce and Abraham Lincoln to President Barack Obama.
In 1896, the modern-day button was born when the classic pin-back design was patented by Whitehead and Hoag, “who wanted buttons to promote everything and be collected,” according to Busy Beaver’s research on the subject.
And they were. Since then, buttons have arguably become the most populist form of expression — used to proudly express everything from American cultural identity to big-budget marketing schemes. But the core nature of the button through the years has been that anyone can afford one — and they can say anything you want.
As Busy Beaver notes in a 24-page visual booklet of the button, “over the last 118 years, American history has been documented through buttons, and the tradition continues.”
A Button for Everyone
“Ultimately I want to make enough buttons for every person in the U.S. — it’d be great for everyone to have one,” Carter said, after a brief tour of the button museum and Busy Beaver’s busy workspace.
By “everyone,” she means everyone on Earth. And making enough buttons for 316 million people is an obtainable goal; the shop has already made around 30 million buttons. But making 7.1 billion buttons is the ambition of someone who really loves buttons.
“I have my favorite button from when I was 12 in here,” Carter said. “One of our biggest goals moving forward is showing people how to use buttons. They should be little mementos that remind you of what’s important.”
“I want people to express themselves and connect,” she added. “You have more empathy for people when you can connect and [the button] talks even when you don’t.”
That mentality is embodied in the shop’s outdoor sign as well as the shop itself. The sign is a 3-foot button with an image the Busy Beaver logo inviting guests in. If that button were pinned on the Statue of Liberty it would be relative to the size of a 1 ¼ inch button on an average human, Carter remarked.
There are literally tens of thousands of buttons at the Busy Beaver workshop and more every day.
Carter said she hopes to move the company to its new Logan Square location within a year, it’s a larger space and Busy Beaver hopes to make use of it for the future of buttons in America.
That’s because the stories behind each button has been a lifelong love of Carter’s and the company’s foundation.
“I didn’t think it would be as challenging or interesting as it’s become,” she said. “I’m really hoping it’s the final place for Busy Beaver.”
And, if you were wondering, the shop and museum accept button donations.
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