Museum features Stafford buttons
By Annie Gentile - ReminderNews
Stafford - posted Wed., Sep. 5, 2012
If you’re a button collector, you’ll surely find a wonderful treat in a visit to the Keep Homestead Museum, just over the state line in Monson, Mass. Myra Keep Lovell Moulton, who died in 1988, bequeathed the family home and property to the town along with a substantial portion of the contents of her home, including a remarkable collection of buttons.
On Sunday, Sept. 2, Jacquie Hatton, a 20-year docent volunteer with the museum and member of the Monson Button Club, presented a program featuring the former Schwanda Button Factory that operated just south of Monson in nearby Stafford Springs. The factory, which operated from 1917 to 1969, was best known for its beautiful, iridescent mother-of-pearl buttons and belt slides which were crafted from abalone and other shells harvested from the south seas. Many of the Schwanda Button Factory buttons and samples of the shells they were made from are on display at the KHM, courtesy of the Schwanda family.
“Freshwater shells are extremely white and were typically used for nurses’ uniforms, but they don’t have the iridescence of salt water shells,” said Hatton, an avid button collector herself who has researched the Schwanda factory and its history for the past 20 years.
She said an impressive collection of Schwanda mother-of-pearl buttons can also be found on display at the Stafford Historical Society.
Hatton said the Schwanda family brought their button manufacturing skills with them from Bohemia (now Czechoslovakia) when Benedict Schwanda, his family, and two apprentices immigrated to the United States in 1898. They settled in New York City and began cutting and carving ocean pearl buttons by hand out of their home at East 74th Street. In 1902, they moved their operation to Winfield, Long Island, later purchasing a factory in Philadelphia. By 1917, they purchased the United Manufacturing Company of Stafford Springs and, under the management of Benedict Jr. and Joseph Schwanda, began manufacturing ocean pearl buttons on a larger scale. They also opened plants in 1933 in Long Island City and in Denton, Maryland.
“They provided jobs for a lot of people in the area,” said Hatton, who estimated the Stafford Springs factory employed as many as 300 workers at its peak.
Hatton said the Schwanda factory eventually diversified into painted glass, wood, metal, and plastic (casein) buttons. In time, they sold their buttons under not only the Schwanda logo, but also UltraKraft and ButtonKraft.
The factory eventually shut its doors as skilled workers began to retire and the lure of defense industries and businesses took younger workers in other directions. Additionally, Hatton said, the degradation of pearl shell beds in the south seas due to atomic testing drove up the cost of harvesting shells to a point where it became no longer profitable.
Hatton said reminders of the former factory can still be found after all these years. Though the building no longer houses a button manufacturing business - Hatton said she believes the building is home to a printed circuit board company - she said broken shells could still be found on site and canoeists will still find bits and pieces of discarded mother-of-pearl buttons on the stream bed that passes by the old factory.
“I understand that some of the shells went down the river and ended up making wonderful fill for residents in the area,” said Hatton.
In addition to the Schwanda buttons and shell samples, visitors the KHM will also find excellent samples of mosaic buttons from Florence and Rome, Revolutionary and Civil War-era buttons, ornate buttons with fruit and flower symbols, Kate Greenaway storybook character buttons, and Jerusalem Pearl buttons, to name a few.
“[The Keep Family] never threw anything away,” said Emy Shepherd, Board of Directors chair. “My estimate is we have only about 10 percent of her button collection out on display.”
For more information about the Keep Homestead Museum and its extensive button collection, visit the website www.keephomesteadmuseum.org.