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Napan becomes unlikely caretaker of prized button collection

Mark van Gorder of Napa inherited an unusual gift: 3,000 vintage buttons. They belonged to his great-grandmother, who collected them for years. Take a look here.

Mark van Gorder appreciates family history as much as the next guy.

But van Gorder recently received a special “inheritance” — passed down from his great grandmother — that has left him somewhat at a loss: a button collection.

And we’re not talking just a jar of buttons. Van Gorder is now the caretaker of more than 3,000 buttons, some more than 100 years old, of all shapes and sizes and made around the world.

His great-grandmother, Lorena Jones, collected them since she was a little girl, according to his aunt and mother, said van Gorder.

Many of the buttons have been carefully sewn onto large cardboard button display cards, organized by subject, material or place of origin.

Van Gorder’s not a button aficionado, but some of the fasteners are quite remarkable, he said, especially those hand-painted or engraved.

“The idea that somebody hand-made that button, from who knows how long ago,” amazes him, said van Gorder.

This collection comes from a different time, “when buttons obviously meant something.” Perhaps they indicated wealth or status, such as working as a doctor or soldier. Usually only the affluent could afford hand-painted buttons on a fine wool or fur coats.

The buttons range in size from smaller than a pea to several inches in diameter. They’re made of glass, vintage plastics, wood, silver, porcelain, shell and bone or ivory.

One set of small buttons was saved from the fire after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, said a handwritten note. Others came from Japanese and American military uniforms. One set features hand-painted flowers on porcelain. Two buttons have old photographs in them.

The buttons come from countries including China, Japan, the former Czechoslovakia and Siam, England, Scotland, the U.S. and elsewhere.

“The effort that was put into these things,” is extraordinary, said van Gorder. “It’s the fine detail in such a small piece of work. To me, they’re all art. That’s what I think is the most fascinating.”

“They’re not just utilitarian. They had big meaning to someone.”

Buttons don’t have the same importance today, he said. “I don’t look at my buttons on my shirt. That’s why I think these are interesting.”

Yes, it’s a family collection, but van Gorder said he’s not the right person to become the ultimate caretaker of such buttons.

He’s not inclined to frame thousands of buttons to display on the walls of his Napa home. And he’s not one to collect things, admitted van Gorder. His family isn’t insisting that he become the permanent caretaker of the buttons, either.

Perhaps a museum would like the collection, van Gorder wondered. Or a fashion school or textile education center?

After all, an artist or worker made these buttons — some many, many years ago, he said.

“And their work is still here today,” said van Gorder. “It feels like some should be preserved and shown for their artwork.”

“I don’t know if there’s any that are hugely valuable but we don’t know quite what to do,” with the collection, said Laura van Gorder, Mark’s mother.

Laura van Gorder noted that her grandmother, who was born in 1894, lived during the Depression. 

While her grandmother's husband worked as an electrician, the family wasn’t well off, Laura van Gorder said.

“I think originally she collected (the buttons) because she thought eventually they’d be worth more than they were at the time.”

Her grandmother didn’t have the means to travel to the far off countries the buttons came from, so perhaps the little fasteners were her way of “seeing” the world, said Laura van Gorder.

As the decades passed, “None of us really thought to ask her what she planned to do with them,” she said.

Mark van Gorder said he’s going to continue to try and find the right home for the collection. 

“It just doesn’t seem right to me to just let them sit in a bucket,” he said.

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Business Editor

Jennifer Huffman is the business editor and a general assignment reporter for the Napa Valley Register. I cover a wide variety of topics for the newspaper. I've been with the Register since 2005.

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