Johnson Frazier gave up a career as a carpenter to join his high school sweetheart’s button business, and it all started with a pizza box stuffed full of old buttons.
“Annie and I were selling at weekend flea markets — glassware, pocket knives, anything old and unusual — when a family friend asked if we wanted to sell some buttons,” he says. “We bought the pizza box for $75, put the buttons out for $1 each at the flea market in Lambertville, and they flew off the table like hotcakes. We knew we were pricing them too low. We did some investigating, and the more we messed with the buttons, the better we liked them.”
Once a novice, Frazier is now a dealer and expert on buttons used on clothing. He will present a program, “Banners, Flags, and Ribbons” at the spring show and competition of the New Jersey State Button Society (NJSBS) on Saturday, May 11, at 1:30 p.m. at the Union Fire Company fire hall, 1396 River Road (Route 29), Titusville. The show runs from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. The fall show is Saturday, September 7, at the same location.
The day’s activities include the judging of button trays entered into competition, an educational display of buttons worn on gloves, and a button raffle. Plus, of course, the chance to buy and sell buttons. The Fraziers will set up five tables to display about 5,000 items from their stock. They join nearly a dozen dealers from the tri-state area who sell to quilters, crafters, antique collectors, re-enactors, and those seeking special buttons to wear.
Most of the buyers, however, are serious collectors who enjoy the artwork and history of buttons, including how they are designed and made. To enter competitions on state or national levels, they painstakingly assemble trays of modern and/or vintage buttons that might cost as little as $1 or more than $200. The esoteric categories for each competition have strict rules. For this show, for instance, the categories include “celluloid wafers in two or more layers, 20 buttons any size” or “birds, 20 buttons any size, two points for each subclass of bird, secondary consideration given to materials, usage, back types, and shapes.”
Personal satisfaction, not profit, is the goal, because at this show the top prize is $15.
The Fraziers have no other jobs; they make their living as button dealers, and though there are lots of full-time button dealers, there are few, if any, married couples sharing equally in the business. Theirs is a romantic tale. “We were high school sweethearts,” says Frazier. “She got married, and I went to work. I believe I did carry the torch and pined a little. Seventeen years later, in 1987, we got back together. We are pretty lucky now — we are together all the time.”
Johnson Frazier and his future wife, Annie, grew up in Bridgeton in South Jersey. She graduated in 1974 from Rutgers/Douglass with a double major in anthropology and German. He went to trade school and worked as a mechanic, then as a carpenter. Meanwhile Annie had jobs as an administrative assistant in East Orange, New York, and Philadelphia. In 1982 she opened a candy store. After marrying Johnson, she closed the store and worked as office manager of a scientific instrument company in Lambertville, selling at flea markets on the side.
They learned about the button world together. “We found there was a National Button Society and books telling the history of buttons and their prices,” says Frazier. “There were all kinds — pearl, black glass, metal, enamel, and uniform buttons. Annie fell in love with them. I enjoyed the ‘guy’ buttons — made for fire police and police departments, the military, transportation (railroad and bus uniforms), and commercial purposes (factory uniforms).”
Frazier says his late mother was perplexed by his interest, asking “Why would anybody in their right mind want to collect buttons?” But following her precept to “do whatever makes you happy and do the best you can,” he left his carpenter’s job, influenced by an injury to his back. “I didn’t want to climb on roofs any more, and Annie was traveling over hell’s half acre, going to button shows. I didn’t want to be alone, so I decided to do what she was doing.”
In a business that involves schlepping thousands of buttons every weekend, Frazier gives himself the title of CEO, as in Carry Everything Out. “We are pretty lucky to be together all the time,” says Frazier. “The first show we sold at was in Pennsylvania in 1990. We quit our jobs and started doing other state shows. Now we do a total of 14 shows a year plus Internet sales.”
Meanwhile they are active in local, state, and national organizations. For instance, they belong to the Central Jersey Buttoniers, which meet monthly in members’ homes. Annie Frazier joined the board of the National Button Society and rose to be president in 2008, its 70th anniversary year. At that point the couple had moved back to Bridgeton to care for their aging mothers, who have since died.
Though they usually work together, on a recent weekend he traveled to a show in Illinois while she flew to Europe to visit dealers and comb flea markets in Milan and Paris. “We buy some buttons at shows, and we go to specialty auctions, at least six or seven a year,” says Frazier. “We also travel to look at collections. After so many years in the business, we’ll get calls from heirs who don’t know what to do with their aunt’s collection.”
His wife has a reputation for lightning-quick calculations, Frazier says, and she can go through a collection in two hours that would take someone else six or seven hours, and come up with maybe a better price. Do both of them have to agree to make a buy? “We don’t really have a budget. It’s more whether opportunity comes knocking. If somebody offers us a button we would know what to spend. You have to strike when the iron is hot, because they don’t make these buttons any more.”
Women have always collected buttons, if only to replace them on garments, but the hobby gained in popularity during the Depression, because buttons are so easy to find and some are inexpensive. Men are often drawn to the military and uniform buttons. “We have used buttons since the Revolutionary War and up through all the wars,” says Frazier. Fascinated by the history behind where a particular button came from, he covets the buttons for steamship crew uniforms made in New England. Steamships were around for only 60 years, from the 1830s to the 1890s. “That’s a short time for the world of buttons. Today these buttons, some gold plated, cost from $5 to $25 or, for the ultra rare, more than $100.
His personal collection includes “hundreds and hundreds of police and fire buttons,” and he aims to write a book about them. For his talk, “Banners, Flags, and Ribbons,” Frazier will show both plain and fancy examples. Some of the fanciest 18th-century buttons were for men to wear. “Early on, the men were the peacocks,” he says. “Their buttons were exquisite with enamel and paste jewels, used for decoration as well as utilitarian purposes.”
Are most button boxes merely full of junk? “There’s always something of interest in a button box,” says Frazier. “The worst thing is when somebody says that they threw all their mother’s buttons in a dumpster. You just wonder what they were!”
New Jersey State Button Society Spring Show and Competition, program by Johnson Frazier at 1:30 p.m., Union Fire Company fire hall, 1396 River Road, Titusville. Saturday, May 11, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. $2 for adults at the door. For more information, contact Lillian Buirkle at 732-691-1776 or email@example.com, or go to newjerseystatebuttonsociety.org.
Barbara Figge Fox, U.S. 1’s senior correspondent, also belongs to the Central Jersey Buttoniers and the New Jersey State Button Society.