Published July 05. 2014 4:00AM Updated July 05. 2014 11:52PM
Blame it on grandma's button tin.
That's how George and Gretchen Gauthier of Groton explain certain people's fascination with collecting clothing buttons.
The Gauthiers would know - they estimate they've got 30,000 to 40,000 buttons of their own.
"That old grandmother was born in 1880 or 1890 and she was inheriting her grandmother's buttons. In those days, they were saving every button," said George Gauthier, 73, a retired Pfizer Inc. chemist and the president of two local button clubs. "Most people get started because of their grandmother's button box. They get the button box and they get curious. They ask, 'What is this? What's the style? It's so pretty.'"
That's how George Gauthier's late wife, Joy, got hooked on buttons. She was too busy raising four children when she first received her grandmother's giant jar of buttons. But later, when she had more time to pour them out and look at them, she was smitten.
"Mostly they were shell, or what they call pearl, or simple little cheap metal buttons, but mixed in were a few beautiful glass and china buttons," George Gauthier said.
Joy Gauthier separated and organized her buttons, and later, after she attended her first button show, she was all in.
George admits he became "a button enabler" when Joy was sick with lymphatic cancer. He asked friends and family "to raid their grandmother's button box because Joy needs something new."
People were sending her buttons from all over the country and from two doors away.
Gretchen Beckius and her husband, Brian, who lived practically next door on Tyler Avenue, were good friends of the Gauthiers, and Gretchen, like everyone else, went looking for buttons for Joy. While undergoing chemotherapy and radiation, Joy found solace in her growing button collection.
But Joy succumbed to her cancer in May 2005, and about six weeks later, Brian Beckius suffered a tragic, fatal injury after he fell off a ladder while trimming a tree in his yard.
Already friends and neighbors, George and Gretchen would help one another through the difficult months ahead, as each adjusted to the loss of a longtime spouse. George would do yard work for Gretchen and she would cook him meals. Over time, their relationship grew and the two married about two years later. Then, Gretchen, 53, also got interested in buttons.
George jokes that when he first invited her to go upstairs to "the button room," she gave him a look as if he had asked, "Would you like to come up and see my etchings?" In fact, she did go up to see the buttons, but she asked George to stay downstairs.
She spent several hours letting it all sink in, looking over the cards and trays - collectors organize their buttons on 9-by-12-inch, acid-free pieces of cardboard, sorted by size, composition, decoration, historical period, or some other theme.
"It was like Alice falling down the rabbit hole, only it was Gretchen falling through the button hole," Gretchen Gauthier explained.
A former biologist at Pfizer Inc., she was attracted by the orderliness.
"The taxonomy of buttons is very similar to the taxonomy of biology," she explained. "All mammals, animals, birds are in groups - and buttons have their own taxonomy. I get it because they're organized in a way that my brain already thinks, but you don't have to be a scientist to enjoy buttons."
The Gauthiers have 700 button trays or cards, each holding about 30 to 40 buttons.
There are buttons made of fabric, glass, ceramic, china, shell, horn, metal, wood, plastic, enamel, polymers and more. They have 40 cards of black glass buttons, the result of British Queen Victoria's extended period of mourning following the death of her husband, Prince Albert, in 1861. The queen wore black for almost five decades, and her court and constituents followed suit, creating a demand for black buttons, many of which have found their way to family button boxes.
The couple said a collector may focus on a variety of buttons or concentrate on certain ones, like military, art deco or livery.
Livery buttons - the ones cast by wealthy Europeans for the uniforms of their household staff starting in about 1780 - got a lot more attention when the "Downton Abbey" series came along. A footman like Thomas Barrow on the popular PBS television show would sport buttons decorated with the Grantham family crest on his waistcoat and jacket.
The Gauthiers admit they are always scanning close-ups when they watch the show to see whether the buttons look authentic.
George Gauthier most enjoys collecting calico buttons - a calico pattern inked on an orb of porcelain - which originated near Calcutta, India, but were being mass produced in England by the mid-1840s. There are 327 known patterns that come in a variety of sizes, and he would like to have an example of every one.
Gretchen Gauthier's favorites are the glass buttons. Some in her collection date back to 1850 and others she's recently purchased at a notions' shop.
"People will find glass buttons in their treasures because they survive, they live through fire and other abuse, some hundreds of years," she said.
Scouring tag sales
On average, the couple said they spend about one hour every day focusing on their buttons. George is president of the Owaneco Button Club, which was founded in 1956 and recently moved its monthly meetings on the first Wednesday of every month from Lisbon to Groton. He's also president of the Nutmeg Button Club, founded in 1942, that meets the second Friday of the month at the Killingworth Public Library. And he's treasurer of the Connecticut State Button Society and is active in the National Button Society.
Gretchen is awards chairman of the New England Regional Button Association and also is active in the national group.
At meetings, the Gauthiers and other button club members share their expertise with newcomers, helping them identity and organize what they have.
Once a family button tin has been exhausted, collectors scour tag sales, consignment shops that carry vintage clothing, websites and button shows, where, when a coveted button is found, there's often a loud commotion. George Gauthier said his button friends know when they hear Gretchen whistle that she's found a treasure.
For the initiated, there are three facets of button-collecting: The fashion, style and beauty of a button; its history and how clothing and buttons have changed over time; and the technology or various ways buttons have been made.
Button collectors the couple have met have been as young as 10 and as old as 98. About 85 percent of them are women, George Gauthier said.
In the U.S., button collecting was recognized as an organized hobby with the founding of the National Button Society in 1938.
According to its website, the society emphasizes the preservation and study of clothing buttons and boasts more than 3,000 members on four continents, with 39 of the 50 states represented by state and local button clubs. Its focus is on educational research and exhibitions, the publishing and dissemination of information about buttons, and the preservation of the aesthetic and historical significance of buttons for future generations.
For the Gauthiers, who have other interests and collections, buttons are educational, affordable and easy.
They have a friend who collects pinball machines, and said buttons are easier to handle and organize.
"It's like collecting little pieces of historical art," Gretchen Gauthier said.
"It's a hobby that will take you anywhere you want, and it's manageable," George Gauthier said.