Colleen Bennett - Sotheby's International Realty

La Verne’s Anne Larkin Is On the Button with Her Growing Collection

October 12, 2017
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Anne Larkin is all buttoned up for fall.

LA VERNE, California, October 12, 2017 — Anne Larkin of La Verne is one fasten-ating woman, especially  when it comes to pulling together threads of history that weave a narrative and tell a story.

Eddie's Italian Eatery

 

Anne has those skills and more because she is an avid button collector, not that she had much choice. She was born in 1938, the same year the National Button Society was founded, and her mother and her mother before her collected buttons, a low-cost hobby that was fun and easy to take up especially when money was hard to come by during the depths of The Depression.

 

But before you pooh-pooh this button-collecting story and move on to the more serious sports or business pages, consider that buttons, which have been around since time immemorial, offer a real window, no, make that a peephole, into history.

 

The best buttons that have been made over the centuries aren’t just tiny or shiny discs or knobs sewn into garments, they are historical artefacts.

 

Now it’s not known exactly how many buttons or pieces of history Anne owns — many of her favorites are mounted on cards for display at button competitions (yes, they have button competitions) — but to see her tiny treasures, you first have to brush past many of the other heirlooms in her La Verne home.

 

Upon entering her abode, you’re met with rows of books, telling you right away that Anne is well read, like a Jessica Fletcher of “Murder, She Wrote” fame. Her demeanor is calm and confident,  like a docent guiding you through a museum. Indeed, she often buttonholes small groups and shares her collecting passion with them.

 

Anne’s collection of Halbig dolls.

In her living room huddled in a chair sit several 19th Century Simon & Halbig dolls, their bisque porcelain faces making them appear amazingly lifelike — maybe a little too lifelike. Nearby, a coffee table with a glass overlay holds an 1838 wooden clarinet that her grandfather’s uncle played.  There’s also a photo of the uncle proudly displaying his penny farthing, one of the high-wheel bicycles that helped trigger a cycle craze in the late 1800s

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“He was a member of the Kankakee [Illinois] Ramblers,” she proudly notes, “and the “League of American Wheelmen,” a group that still exists today.

 

Resting against one wall is an Eastlake cabinet. Charles Eastlake helped birth the Arts & Crafts movement with his belief in building simple sturdy furniture that was in direct contrast to the over-the-top Rococo Revival and Renaissance Revival styles popular during the Victorian era.

 

Next to some 1923 vintage wicker furniture stands her grandfather’s clock, which ticked for 114 years running until it finally stopped this past July. Now it’s silent, frozen in time.

 

“I hang on to everything,” Anne said.

But Anne is not a hoarder. Her home, garden and collections are well ordered and beautifully manicured. There isn’t a ragbag or coffee can full of buttons in sight. In her native Indiana, she said collecting came naturally and logically.

 

“Indiana people like to collect,” she explained. “They don’t have great weather half the year, so activities are confined to the indoors half the year.”

Gossip buttons were inspired from one of Norman Rockwell’s most famous paintings, “The Gossips.” 

 

Finally, moving to Anne’s kitchen and sitting down to an early-morning breakfast of strawberries and cream, she slowly starts pulling out of a box (she warns that she has 20 or more boxes) her pieces de resistance, and the history lesson begins in earnest.

 

The buttons she begins to reveal and display come from nearly every country and are made from almost every element, both real and artificial. There are buttons made of ivory, jade, bone, lacy glass, Muscle shells, Mother of Pearl, celluloid, bakelite, lucite, ceramic, brass, walrus tusk, whalebone, tortoise shells, mirrors, olive wood, and something called “gutta percha,” a once plentiful material harvested from Malaysian gum trees.

 

“It’s a relative of the coconut palm and was used as ballast for ships,” Anne noted. “You would find huge piles of it in port towns.” Today, it’s used in dental cement and making splints.

 

Diving deeper into the box, she shows a photograph of Pearlies. These were a close-knit group of market traders known as costermongers who looked after one another and stood out by the buttons sewed onto their garments.

 

“They were poor people who helped raise money for people who were poorer than they were,” Anne explained. The tradition and parade of buttons continues to this day.

 

Next she pulls out a card of “duster” buttons made out of celluloid. The buttons took their name from the dusters or voluminous coats that people wore to protect themselves from the dust that their open-air automobiles churned up on unpaved roads.

 

Anne’s magic box also held a card of Dorset buttons, which started being manufactured in the 17th century and once employed about 4,000 people in the button trade. Dorset County lies in southwest coastal England.

 

Also among Anne’s treasures were dangling pearl crocheted buttons worn by the courtesans of Paris to help draw attention to their red-light district trade.

 

The Pearlie pageant continues to this day.

Anne also showed off some shiny red Lucite buttons that ladies of their day, including her mother, wore to Saturday night dances. President Calvin Coolidge’s wife had started the trend when she wore a red dress adorned with red buttons that became the rage in all the haute couture or high-fashion houses of Paris.

“She was as outgoing as he was silent,” Anne said about the taciturn president known as “Silent Cal.”

 

In contrast, Anne’s husband is a jock who captained both his baseball and basketball teams at the University of Massachusetts. Anne and he recently went back to his alma mater where he was recognized for his twin feats. Today, he plays a lot of golf, and mostly tolerates Anne’s collection. What can you do when you’re outnumbered!

 

When they married in 1980, Anne thought she had to ask for his permission to bring some of her mother’s most prized possessions from Indiana out to California.

 

“Honey,” she said, “I hope you don’t mind if I bring a few things home.”

 

“Of course,” he replied. “Whatever you want, just put it into your luggage.”

 

That luggage is now a wonderful home brimming with antiques and history and exuding all the charm of a bed & breakfast.

 

For visitors fortunate to visit her home or hear one of her “button” talks, you will likely learn more from her in a half hour than you can from attending a full semester history class.

 

Everyone from historical societies to film directors shooting period movies should put Anne on their resources list, because when it comes to fascinating slivers of history that will have you begging for more, she’s on the button!

 

If you would like Anne to address your group, you can email her at annelarkin@roadrunner.com.

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If you want to be on the button with your next real estate transaction (buying, selling, investing), call longtime La Verne Realtor Colleen Bennett, with Sotheby’s International Realty. You can call Coll at 909.374.4744. Colleen is also the author of The Real Dirtt, the great real estate blog found on the front page.

 

 

 

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