When Apple’s iPhone was released, its sleek look set it apart from the competition. Gone was the traditional keypad, in favor of a touch-sensing flat screen. It was another example of the minimalism that Steve Jobs, the company’s co-founder, favored.
A 2007 Wall Street Journal article revealed a contributing factor to these preferences: Mr. Jobs had an aversion to buttons. Koumpounophobia, or the fear of buttons, is a surprisingly common phobia.
Mr. Jobs probably wouldn’t have hoofed his way around the Upper East Side of Manhattan like we did, in search of a big golden button hanging over the door of a little townhouse that’s home to a nifty store called Tender Buttons. Whether your personality is best described as unbuttoned or buttoned-down, you’ll find a button there that’s perfectly matched to your style.
Millicent Safro and Diana Epstein opened Tender Buttons in an old button store in 1964. They have been at their current East 62nd Street address since 1968. Gertrude Stein’s 1914 collection of short poems about everyday objects, Tender Buttons, provided the inspiration for the name. Julie Andrews, Joan Collins and Nora Ephron purchased buttons fashioned from pearls, rhinestones and Bakelite there.
Epstein and Safro travel the world in search of beautiful buttons dating from the 18th century to the present day. Valuable collectible buttons are displayed in cabinets or in frames. Buttons crafted from mother-of-pearl, enamel, passementerie, ivory, mosaics, porcelain, brass, silver, fabric, tortoiseshell, horn, plastic and more are organized in neat, tidy rows of small cardboard boxes that line one wall of the shop.
Handwritten labels reveal the contents of the boxes.
For more on Tender Buttons, see “Cure for the Lost Button,” an article about Tender Buttons from the March 23, 2016 issue of the New York Times.
Buttons, the 1991 book by Diana Epstein and Millicent Safro, includes a preface by Tom Wolfe, who wrote, “Tender Buttons is not a shop but a button museum that happens to de-accession daily in order to keep going.”
Martha Stewart first introduced us to this unique store in a segment on her television show long ago. During Martha’s field trip there, Tender Buttons staff demonstrated how to display a button collection, how to make a button collector box, and how to make a Victorian charm string out of buttons – something I’ll be doing with my own collection of special buttons.
Other interesting button-related resources are On the Button: The Significance of an Ordinary Item, by Nina Edwards, and “On the Button” from the March 9, 2016 issue of Country Life. “A Dorset Crosswheel Button to Make,” an article from the July/August 2010 issue of PieceWork, shares the history of and instructions for making a traditional English Dorset button, created by repeatedly wrapping thread over a ring.
The Great Depression gave rise to button collecting as a hobby. Since 1938, the National Button Society has emphasized the preservation and study of clothing buttons by providing a resource where collectors can exchange information and share finds. The society created an organization and classification system, as well as a vocabulary for describing buttons that is based on a button’s origin, period, construction and decoration.