Ted Hake is one of the world's foremost experts on button collecting— in fact, he literally wrote the book on buttons. We recently sat down with him to get his take on the button biz. From the local antique store finds to the $100k holy grail of button collecting, Ted gives us his advice on collecting pin-backs.
How did you get started in the button collecting biz?
From age eight I was a coin collector. In my high school years, I rediscovered buttons. Unlike coins, which are documented to the precise number minted, I was fascinated by the total lack of information, at that time, on what buttons even existed let alone how rare something might be. By 1961, while at the University of Pittsburgh, I found a coin dealer who wanted to buy presidential campaign buttons so I transitioned from pure collector to collector-dealer. My first sales list with buttons went out to twelve people in 1964, my first Hake’s Americana & Collectibles auction was in early 1968 and my first book, The Button Book, was published in 1972. It has been more of the same ever since.
On the left, Ted Hake's first button. On the right, his current favorite.
What was your first button? Your favorite button?
My first buttons came to me in 1948 in a small gray box. They were a gift from an antiques dealer friend of my mother and contained buttons used in York County, Pennsylvania to raise funds for American participation in World War I. As for my favorite, that’s like asking a parent to pick a favorite child. However, I can say my most recent favorite is this early 1900s gorgeous multicolor.
The $100k button! Photo courtesy of prices4antiques.com
What's the most valuable button you've ever come across?
The holy grail of button collecting is a 1.25” size button from the 1920 presidential campaign with photos of the Democratic candidates James Cox and Franklin D. Roosevelt. If anyone has an undamaged example, you can likely trade it for a check in excess of $100,000.00.
Where do you go to find/purchase collectible buttons?
Anywhere there are vintage collectibles, there are likely to be buttons. At the grass roots are yard sales and local auctions. At the top of the pyramid are collector organizations like the American Political Items Collectors (APIC), specialty auctions like Hake’s, and my personal site, mostly with buttons, Tedhake.com.
What's your advice for a newbie button collector?
There are authentic buttons going back to 1896 that can be bought for ten dollars and less but others that sell for thousands of dollars. Think about your budget and find a focus that matches it comfortably. Secondly, until a collector has some basic knowledge, deal only with dealers who guarantee authenticity. Like any collectible with value, there have been reproductions made over the decades. Both my books and the APIC website provide information on fakes and it is not difficult to gain a working knowledge of the basics. While most APIC members focus on campaigns and causes, membership in this group is the doorway to informed button collecting, meeting other collectors and learning about shows and ethical dealers across the U.S.A.
What are you going to do to celebrate the button's birthday?
I collect the self-advertising items from the button’s inventor Whitehead & Hoag Co. of Newark, New Jersey. Over the past few months I’ve acquired several celluloid covered notebooks, ink blotter pads, celluloid rulers and other advertising specialty items they gave away to promote business in the early 1900s. It is time to integrate my new acquisitions with the collection—seems like July 21 is the perfect day to get it done!
Ted Hake is currently donning Busy Beaver's 2013 limited edition National Pin-back Button Day Button.
What buttons are you wearing right now?
I’m wearing the 117th Birthday of the Button button that Busy Beaver Button Co. created for me between now and July 21st. The “I Love Buttons” rebus design was a big hit with collectors at the Harrisburg, PA APIC show, June 27-29.
Inspired by all the talk of historical buttons? Create your own custom buttons.