Hot Irons Cannot Hurt Them
I keep a list of things I plan to write about someday. On the list is “Victorian Button Collectors Club Inc.”, except that now, after Alicia’s wonderful post, I feel I can cross it off. Like Alicia, I was charmed during the short time I spent in this parallel universe, a universe ordered by buttons in all their multitudinous glory. Alicia headed out to a non-descript suburban hotel; we drove far out east to a 1970’s-era church hall. Alicia described most of my experience exactly: the carefully assembled cards with their tiny, spidery handwriting, the old ladies, the camaraderie of like-minded souls. But at the Victorian Button Collectors Club Inc. Display Day and Sale, there was a raffle, and there were men.
It was the men I really noticed. Or rather, a couple of men, both button lady husbands, both wearing gold-lettered enamel badges: President and Secretary. I was struck both by the officiousness of the organisation (but of course, button people would insist on a good badge) and the sweetness of these elderly couples with their shared passion. Stories ran through my head of relationships in which the void left by grown children was filled by buttons, or a family in which button collecting ran down through the generations or a man saved from alcoholism or overwork or retirement by the chance noticing of an especially fine mother-of-pearl. Mostly I was struck by the fact that neither of these men seemed at all uncomfortable or out-of-place in a sea of women poring over precious buttons. This was their world too, and they wore badges to prove it.
I’ve written before about my love of enthusiasts and hobbyists. Buttons, cacti, metal type or steam engines, it’s all the same to me. Enthusiam draws me like a moth to a lightbulb. Alicia asks what is it about collecting that’s so optimistic, so moving, and I’d agree, yes, it is love. It’s about honouring objects, and caring. It’s about identifying with an otherwise disparate group of people. At it’s basest, collecting brings out greed and envy; and it’s best, I think, it’s how collective memory is preserved and nurtured.
I had an idea a few years back to make a radio documentary about a group of letterpress enthusiasts. We flew to St. Louis to attend their annual convention at a local Holiday Inn. We stayed in a decrepit motel off the interstate and ate dry cereal for breakfast in the parking lot outside the Target megastore across the street. In my head, I could hear my piece on This American Life already. But I misjudged how nervous I would be conducting interviews, how ill-prepared I was to operate the recording equipment and how suspiciously I’d be received. I’d thought, you see, that these were my people (I was a member of the group, albeit out-of-status), but I found instead that by adopting an anthropological role I was most definitely an outsider. It didn’t help that I was a girl (most of the members are male) or that many of them have been meeting together annually for thirty years or more. It was a disaster. Isaac stoically spent his 40th birthday dinner at the convention banquet in a St. Louis Italian restaurant, after I’d spent the afternoon berating him for not checking to see that the tape was actually recording. I crossed “journalist” off my list of things to be when I grew up. On the long drive back from a convention-related trip into southern Illinois, we listened to the wonderful Episode 268 of This American Life, which, in my black mood, seemed a perfectly-timed rebuke: You think you can do this? Think again, girlie! But I still believe that there’s a real story to be told, and I hope one day to tell it.