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Madelyn Lebo is a freshman at Palatine High School. She is involved in volleyball and softball and hopes to try track and field at some point. In school, she enjoys her art class with her friends, and...

Beyond the buttons

Button collectors share their stories at state show
Karim Melek
Button collector and designer Suzanne Proulx stands next to a tapestry with buttons she designed and created.
Suzanne Proulx creates buttons from Indonesian-grown tagua nuts and pine needles from the Chicago Botanical Garden. (Karim Melek)

Inspired by her northern Wisconsin cabin, Suzanne Proulx translates the beauty of nature into intricately designed, handmade buttons.

Proulx is one of the many button collectors showcasing their passions at the annual Illinois State Button Show in Bloomington, Illinois, from April 25–27. 

Proulx, however, differs from most button collectors by opting to create her own buttons this year to sell as a studio button artist.  

Proulx designs buttons that are inspired by birch trees outside her Wisconsin cabin.

“I used to collect buttons to make jewelry,” she said. “And then I found out there was a national button society, which led me to investigate more about old buttons.”

One of her mediums is the tagua nut, a popular button-making material similar to the feel of ivory. For other creations, she etches designs into celluloid and mother of pearl, using the traditional whaler method of scrimshaw, which involved carving bones and ivory.

Many of those present had different ways of showcasing their collections.

“Everybody does it differently, and that’s OK,” Midwest Regional Button Association President Paul Thomas said. 

Paul Thomas explains the history and origins of various buttons. (Genevieve Jennings)

Thomas comes from a long line of button collectors, being the fifth generation in his family to carry on the tradition. 

“Every single [button] is an individual work of art that somebody created somewhere, somehow,” he said. Everything throughout history—from religion to politics, and from art to war—has been depicted in buttons.

Thomas explains that there are two different ways most people collect buttons: for competition or for fun.

“If you’re competing, we have a very strict set of rules we have to follow for competition,” he said.

For example, there’s a “20% rule” where you can’t have more than 20% of your collection submitted together by the same button artist. 

Jean Curtis, the award and judging chair at the show, explained that this rule was created to ensure that collectors represented a wide range of artists with a central unifying theme in their characteristics. 

Russa Milburn, the President of the Illinois Button Society, and her sister, Brenda Eilbracht, the Vice President, proudly show off their button collection. (Karim Melek)

“When collecting at home for fun, you can do it any way you want to,” Thomas said. “You can do it by material, subject matter, shapes,

color, you name it.”

“There’s all kinds of different ways you can take in the button hobby.”

Russa Milburn, the president of the Illinois State Button Society, got into the hobby through her sister.

“My sister did custom sewing and she wanted to see what the button show was all about,” Milburn said. “That was back in 2009. She did it and I kind of got hooked,”

Founded in 1941, the Illinois State Button Society has provided a gathering place for button collectors and enthusiasts across the state. 

Next year, in 2025, the National Button Show will be hosted in Springfield, Illinois, from Aug. 3–9.

Addressing concerns that their society wouldn’t be able to pull off the national show, she told members to “prove the naysayers wrong” in the 2024 spring issue of the Illinois Roundup, the button society’s newsletter. 

Coming up soon is Aurora’s Annual Button Market, which will be on May 18 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at 5110 Grand Ave. in Gurnee, Illinois.

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About the Contributors
Karim Melek
Karim Melek, News Editor
Karim is a sophomore at Palatine High School and along with being the News editor at Cutlass, Melek is involved in many activities such as Water Polo, Debate, and Model UN. Melek enjoys traveling and was a part of the 2023 German Exchange trip. His favorite hobbies include playing video games, reading about history, and spending time with friends and family. Melek is also an avid coin collector. He hopes to study international relations and political science in the future.
Genevieve Jennings, Reporter

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  • K

    Kathy EllisMay 14, 2024 at 11:06 pm

    Great article. Well done!!