One of the themes we emphasize with our “Button, Button, Who’s Got the Button?” exhibit is the extremely personal nature these adornments often take with the people who wear them. Buttons can be powerful symbols of self-expression, telling markers of identity, reflections of a life. They link individuals to causes, events, places, and ideas larger than themselves, connecting the person to issues that define them or spark some of their greatest passion. When added up, the buttons one collects over the years also become sources of autobiography.
After being placed in charge of this exhibit, re-homing it at the High Falls Center and Interpretive Museum, I did some thinking about my own relationship with buttons. Then I did some rummaging around in boxes of my old stuff and unearthed a few button treasures. A funny thing happened as I sorted through the scattered relics of my past. The buttons stirred long-dormant memories, taking me back to moments and phases in my life that I hadn’t thought about in years.
I was never an avid collector of buttons, yet I seemed to pick them up here and there during significant intervals. A few examples.
To my knowledge, this is the oldest button that I have:
Seeing it for the first time in over a decade, the button instantly transported me to a childhood trip to Sesame Place, a Pennsylvania amusement park based around the PBS show. I must have been 3 or 4 when my parents bought this for me at one of the park’s many gift shops– a sticker on the back reveals that it cost them 99 cents– as we were leaving. The button was a memento, but it was also intended to lift my spirits after a traumatic day in which I had gotten separated from my family. The memories all came flooding back as I held the button: in a burst of over-stimulated exuberance, I had run away from my father in the water playground part of the park. What at first seemed funny to me as a small child– darting through splashy features and snaking my way through a dense crowd– turned to instant panic when I realized I was genuinely lost and alone in such a large, strange place. The button reminded me of how cold I suddenly felt in my bathing suit, how remorseful I felt at playing such mean a trick on my loving dad, and ultimately how relieved and grateful I was to be reunited with my parents, embracing them upon sight after what seemed like an eternity of running around in a daze. All of this from a small green button.
Flash forward almost twenty years. The boxes also yielded a small cache of buttons from my college days. This was a period in my life, the early and middle 2000s, when education and semi-independence awakened a new “awareness” of the larger world.
Or at least an interest in engaging with it as I tried to shock and impress people with my anti-establishment subversiveness.
Reading books and newspapers, attending lectures, and talking to fellow students, I suddenly became very opinionated about American politics. Through buttons, I quite literally wore my new-found progressive “edginess” on my sleeve (and backpack); I equated the simple act of pinning buttons to my belongings with taking daring stands against the status quo. If I’m being honest, in retrospect, these buttons tell me that I was striving to project a level of sophistication well beyond my actual depth. They represented an instinctive searching for a more just and egalitarian world than I was actually capable of articulating on my own. The buttons of a would-be indignant young man.
Today, I still wear a few buttons on my backpack. Here are some of my favorites:
Everywhere I walk throughout the city of Rochester, I have effectively become a billboard for my current great passions: the Rochester Public Library, the Office of the City Historian, and the High Falls Center and Interpretive Museum. My buttons still reflect my sense of self and interests; they continue to narrate my ongoing autobiography.
What’s your story? Starting this weekend, the “Button, Button, Who’s Got the Button Game” will be resuming in the Rochester area. Look out for the special white “I do” button to begin making return rounds in the city. Catch it, and catch our exhibit at the High Falls Center and Interpretive Museum!
- Jeff Ludwig, Historical Researcher: Office of the City Historian, Rochester Public Library, and City of Rochester