A Place to Button It Up: Inside One Of Chicago’s Most Unique Museums

By Annanya Johari
Medill Reports

Maybe it’s a victory celebration button from  George Washington’s inauguration that you’re hoping to see.  We have the place to find it.

Nestled in a quiet corner of Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood, is one of its most unique museums. Founded and run by Christen Carter and her brother Joel Carter, the Busy Beaver Button Museum houses a collection of more than 25,000 pinback buttons.

“I think buttons are a signifier of the times. They usually have a message or a cultural moment and then they are forever stamped in that time, so you can get a broad historical overview if you look at a large collection of them,” says Joel.

The first thing you notice inside is a wall adorned with more than a thousand buttons on display. On the right, buttons fill flat files and binders.

“We keep changing the buttons out here regularly, most of them are stored in boxes below, and here’s the ultimate button,” Christen says, pointing to one with the message,  “This is the ultimate button.”

The subjects of the buttons spin from politics and sports to music and arts. And there’s an entire section dedicated to beer.

“Prohibition lasted from 1920 to 1933, so we have some buttons from pre-prohibition, and then some of these companies became soda manufacturers. And then there are some anti-prohibition buttons too,” adds Christen.

The siblings started up Busy Beaver as a button manufacturing company in 1995, when Christen required some buttons for a project of her own. She realized all button manufacturers wanted a minimum order of a thousand buttons, more than she needed. So she decided to make them herself and soon launched a company.

They opened in a small space in Bloomington, Illinois, before shifting base to San Francisco. After a few years there, Joel and Christen decided to move it back to Illinois, settling in Logan Square. They occupy two adjacent buildings at 3407 W. Armitage Ave. The space is twice the size of their previous location one block east, giving that the museum and the production business their own space.

“The museum was an offshoot of a passion for making buttons and collecting them. So about eight years ago, we thought we had a collection good enough to make an exhibit of it,” Joel says, when asked about how the museum came into being.

The company has only grown since then. Up to 25 employees work for the business on any given day. “We make roughly 4.5 million buttons a year now, sometimes up to 25,000 in a day,” Joel tells me.

Photo at top: The “I ♥ NY” button designed by Milton Glaser.(Annanya/Medill)