40: A Biography in Buttons

Plus: A Button With A Mystery

Note: There are lots of buttons in this newsletter, and in a couple weeks they’re all going in recycling. If you want any of them, reach out before then and we can figure out how to get it to you. The one button I won’t get rid of is the mystery button at the end.

I never set out to collect buttons, but somehow over the first 18 or so years of my life I accumulated dozens of them. Going to a show? Pick up a button as a souvenir. You say you have a button to promote your business? Sure, I’ll take one. That time I joined the Doctor Who Fan Club? Guess what. I got a button.

I never wore them or put them on my backpack or anything. I just kept them in a bag in my closet. And that’s where they sat for decades until I helped my parents get rid of some old junk in their house.

Looking at the buttons, I realized that a person could put together a fairly decent dossier of my childhood just by looking through this bag of buttons.

Here’s what a person could learn about me from my buttons.

I was a theater kid

In high school I saw a lot of musicals. At some point I started buying buttons as souvenirs. A couple of these are from actual Broadway productions in New York, but I think most are from touring productions. That Phantom mask glows in the dark. And that Joseph one is iridescent.

I was really into comics

I think the majority of these pins were giveaways I got at San Diego Comic Con in 1988 and 1989. You can see my Comic Con badges are there, too.

On the top right is a pin I got for joining the Power Pack fan club. Power Pack was a comic about a group of kids with super powers. I think I joined the fan club by sending $2 to an address in New Jersey, and I got that pin in return along with a letter from a kid saying he just started this fan club and we should be friends.

I was not, however, a member of the Archie fan club. That pin is a lie.

I was a Doctor Who fan

At some point in the mid-’80s, I went to a Doctor Who convention at a hotel in Phoenix. I got to meet Peter Davison, the Fifth Doctor. But he wasn’t my favorite. That was Tom Baker. At the time, there were only five Doctors you could pick a favorite from.

I liked movies

I mean, I guess all kids like movies. But for a brief period I was going to a lot of local premiere screenings and they gave away movie schwag and sometimes that included buttons. I think my favorite piece of movie schwag was my Super Mario Brothers t-shirt that had the movie poster printed on it. The cut of that shirt had the most flattering cut of any t-shirt I owned. I wore that shirt for years until a girl I liked in college suggested that maybe a Super Mario Brothers movie t-shirt didn’t send the most attractive message.

My father was a doctor

Sometimes he’d go to medical conventions and come back with buttons. Once or twice we went to conventions with him. I’m sure the companies that paid to have booths at these conventions were thrilled to have little kids stop by asking for buttons.

I had some political buttons

1992 was my first time voting for President but I vote for Clinton so I have no idea where that Perot button came from. And I couldn’t tell you what Proposition 103 was. But I do remember the Barr McCain campaign in Arizona. I think “Barr” here refers to Burton Barr, who was a state representative in Arizona.

I went to Disneyland

I mean, I guess I could have gotten these anywhere. But I’m pretty sure at least that embroidered patch with my name actually came from Disneyland. (Yeah, it’s a patch and not a button but it was in the button bag so it’s passing as a button today).

I was raised in a Jewish home

Har Zion was the name of a local synagogue, but I did not attend Har Zion. I have no idea why I have a Har Zion pin. Tzedakah Sam was a mascot who reminded us to be charitable. I don’t know if that was just a local thing, or a national thing for Jewish kids.

These buttons are all roughly to scale. Those two at the top are really huge buttons, like five or six inches in diameter.

My junior high mascot was an eagle*

I have these buttons from my junior high, but no buttons from high school. I guess high school didn’t do buttons. Actually, that one campaign button for Meggan, who was running for Junior Vice President on student council, was from high school. But it was made by a student so I’m not sure it counts. I don’t recall whether or not Meggan won.

*This is not information that will help you reset any of my passwords


Here’s a bunch of buttons that are one-offs or don’t fit other categories. But you can still learn a thing or two:

  • My mother went through an Herbalife MLM phase.

  • I saw the “living unicorn” at the circus. Poor thing.

  • We had an old Apple (compatible) computer.

  • I saw Gallagher in concert, although I’ve since come to wonder whether it was actually his brother but he looked and acted so much like the real guy I don’t know if I’ll ever know. That’s a lenticular button and animates when you tilt it.

  • I visited the United Nations.

  • I went to the Hard Rock Cafe in Toronto.

  • I never actually joined band. That button is a lie.

  • I was never actually a member of the Best Western Young Travelers Club, but I was a Best Western Customer Service operator for a couple of summers so I must have picked it up at some point. Boy, do I have stories about that job. Maybe in a future newsletter.

A Button With A Mystery

Of all these buttons, there is only one button that really occupies space in my mind. I think about this button a lot. This button presents a mystery to me. Maybe you can help me solve it.

Some time in the mid-’90s, a couple friends and I explored an old abandoned grammar school in Williams, Arizona. It had been closed for more than ten years, and it was pretty creepy.

Some chalkboards still had lessons on them as though class would resume shortly. There were papers scattered around with half-finished schoolwork. Desks and chairs were piled up. There were weird things you wouldn’t expect to find in a grammar school: a car battery, a box of tax forms, and so on.

But in one classroom, there were hundreds of these buttons scattered all over the floor. All of them said, “Smile more. We’ve got four.”

It seemed harmless to take one as a souvenir. But I’ve always wondered what it means. I’ve come up with theories, but all are wild speculation based on nothing. Maybe there was a campaign to pass Proposition 4? Maybe the school was competing in some sport and their star player was number 4?

Here’s what I know: The school opened in 1894 and closed in 1978. After that, parts of the building were used for a senior center, community center and daycare. A portion of the building briefly housed the local Motor Vehicle Department. But the whole building had been closed and abandoned by the mid-80s. So whatever the buttons were for, the timeline was probably late-’70s to around 1986.

In 2006, the whole building was put up for sale for $800,000. It was purchased by a developer who still hasn’t completed renovations but is working on it. There are plans to turn part of it into a performing arts center. The rest of the building is gradually being turned into apartments, with six of them completed as of this past November.

At least two of the units can now be booked through Airbnb, if you find yourself traveling along Route 66 and want to stay in a creepy old school.

Now having thoroughly documented all of my buttons, I plan to recycle them all. I’ve held on to them for a long time, but I’m not so sentimental that I need the physical objects. I can stir my nostalgic memories just as well with photos as with objects, and bits take way less space than atoms.

So if you saw any buttons you like, reach out in the next week and we’ll see if I can send them to you. Maybe you’re a big Ross Perot nut, or you collect old Coors memorabilia, or you’ve always dreamed of having a Problem Child 2 button. Or maybe you recognize something as a valuable collectible and my loss is your gain. If you want it, let me know.

Meanwhile, that’s it for this edition of the newsletter. Thanks for reading and I’ll see you next time!