We Owe It All to a Simple Button

Story and images provided by the Stillwater History Museum at the Sheerar

Today when you walk into the Stillwater History Museum at the Sheerar you will still be greeted with a smile from Mike and Molly Sheerar as they welcome you to take a closer look at the Sheerar buttons. A mainstay of the museum’s history, the Sheerar button collection dates back to 1937, when Lena Sheerar started collecting with just a handful of buttons. Smaller to collect than the vases she previously collected, her button collection quickly grew in scale to an impressive collection of all shapes, colors, and styles.   

The Sheerar button collection began in New York, but was shipped to Stillwater in 1945, when Lena moved across the country to be closer to her son, Mike. Mike helped ship numerous boxes of buttons to Stillwater with some weighing 50 pounds. Lena is remembered for always having a tale to tell about her buttons. She was known for pulling out a tray or searching through a box for just the right button to tell visitors about. Her stories of the buttons made others see them in a whole new light while closely examining the details and beauty of each button. After her passing, the buttons resided in hidden spaces of the Sheerar home, where their stories were no longer heard.  

Mike and Molly wanted more for their community and Lena’s buttons. In 1972, the Sheerars donated $25,000 to the Stillwater Arts and Humanities Council toward the purchase of the historic Christian Scientist Church and the display of the button collection. This gift allowed for the down payment on what is today the Sheerar Center.  

Since the Museum’s opening, the buttons have been a main feature of the center, bringing in visitors from across the country. The button collection is truly diverse, featuring buttons made from many materials and with numerous techniques. Today, the museum only shows a fraction of the collection at a time, rotating the buttons so each time you visit you might have a new button experience. Current highlights include U.S. armed forces, Victorian, pictorial and shoe buttons. The museum even recently added magnifying glasses so that visitors can get a better look at all of a button’s hidden details.

New generations of button enthusiasts continue to emerge with new button collectors as well as people being inspired by buttons in whole new ways. Buttons are becoming trendy art forms, with buttons being featured in kid’s crafts, mosaics, and in jewelry. The Stillwater History Museum is even getting in on this trend with make-and-take modern button and bead bracelets at the Final Friday Art Crawl coordinated by the OSU Art Museum’s Student Advisory Council and a new children’s program.

Last summer, Sandra Tharp-Thee, a graduate student in Museum Studies, approached the museum looking to use the Museum’s button collection as inspiration for a new children’s picture book and related outreach program. She had completed a similar project with her award-winning book “The Apple Tree,” which won an award for the Best Book of American Indians in Children’s Literature in 2015. She has run an associated educational program in several community libraries.

After several months of development, Sandra will lead the premiere of her new program “All About Buttons” on May 12th as part of the Stillwater History Museum’s “Second Saturday Children’s Exploration Series.”  The program will include a reading of her new book “Lena’s Buttons,” which will take children through a button journey, which led to the opening of our museum. The program also includes a variety of learning games and activities utilizing modern buttons to teach important skills including counting and measuring.  There is also a segment on button identification, sorting, and exhibit planning, as well as make-and-take button art.

Sandra is working to create a publishable version of the book, and the program is now available as an outreach program to the community. The program is designed with a button bag containing all of the button activities, for ease of travel. The program is best for children ages 6-10, but can be adapted for various age ranges. To learn more about this program or to schedule this program for your group contact the museum at 377-0359.  

Forty-four years after the museum’s founding, the museum’s first collection can still be viewed with new eyes. If you haven’t looked closely at the museum’s buttons in a while, please stop in and take a fresh look.  There is still more to discover and in the words of Mike and Molly Sheerar, “We owe it all to a simple button.”