3rd Avenue Buttons  (Page 1)

by Don Lanier

From Austria with Love

The first reporting of 3rd Avenue buttons occurred in March of 1953 when button collector Doctor Charles W. Bush wrote an article in Just Buttons1. They were dubbed "3rd Avenues" because it was in New York city he found a bowl with 24 of them in the window of an antique store on 3rd Avenue.  Since he relates that, upon close inspection, they were silver with a back mark clearly placing their manufacture  in Austria, this author wishes he had called them Austrian silver as it more dignifies these beautifully artful buttons. Dr. Bush pointed out that, with a bit of polishing, a fascinating level of detail and design skill was revealed. He stated in the article that the buttons were "guaranteed to be late nineteenth century" by the antique dealer.  While most subsequent writers did not consider them to be 19th century, all of the materials and literature after 1980 have dated the 3rd Avenues as "early 1900s" or "pre-World War I" including about 35 examples in the Big Book of Buttons2.   

Given that they were 40 to 50 years old when discovered, it seems very strange that someone had not reported on these wonderful little buttons long before. Shortly after Dr. Bush's first article, more of them came out of  hiding!  So why did it take so long?  Perhaps it was that the patina didn’t allow the beauty and detail to come through. In addition, the fine detail of the design is natural trap for the grime from handling and old button boxes. Several great examples of what can be exposed when the button is carefully cleaned are shown in the tables on the following pages, especially the lion in the brush with two pyramids deep in the background shown to the  left. Of course, like most buttons, handling and wear have reduced the fine details on many of the examples shown. Even stranger, many folks still do not know much about 3rd Avenues or that they even have them, including some dealers. For example, at the 2013 Florida State Button Society‘s annual show, I scored two bingos in the white metal buttons of a dealer who had, regretfully, said they did not have any 3rd Avenues. I believe this "lack of recognition" is based on several factors including their size (11/16 inch), material, and lack of visible detail in the normal tarnished and soiled condition.  I’m not advocating you polish all your buttons or even the 3rd Avenues. However, these delightful little gems will not reveal their true  character without some tender care and careful cleaning. Your choice.

So, how many 3rd Avenues are there?  By 1954, two follow up articles3&4 identified an increase in the known examples from Dr. Bushes original 24 to about 75. Then a very long lull set in until 1993, when Kitty Dillon5 reported that she had identified a total of 106 3rd Avenues. That was a fascinating piece of information for me because some of us who were familiar with them thought the numbers would have been much fewer due to the fact that we rarely saw them. The obvious question is "what have we learned in the latest 20 years?"

I began my research approximately a year ago and focused on finding more 3rd Avenue designs, adding to the identification of the subjects, learning more about the Austrian manufacturer and back mark, Knopf König Graz, and examining for evidence of when they were produced. The first two of these three goals have been relatively successful. Based on the kindness of several 3rd Avenue collectors who have sent me pictures or even sold me some of their buttons, the total count joyfully has risen to about 142.  In addition, many folks have assisted in identifying more of the pictorial subjects. Of course I believe there are additional examples and, as collectors become more aware that they have 3rd Avenues, the number will continue to increase. The table of images on the following two pages include photographs of the 92 3rd Avenue buttons I have been able to obtain at this juncture. Subject labels are included where possible and will likely need to be modified as viewers weigh in.

On the matter of the back mark and dates of manufacture, the effort has been futile so far but I remain hopeful. Additional specific company information is a long shot since many such records were deliberately destroyed in actions related to the two World Wars. It seems that, based on the literature, the Division I status should be clear. Alas, it is not clear to everyone. In the past year, a very experienced collector was measled on a Div I pictorial award tray due to a 3rd Avenue button being judged as "not Div I." With the collaboration of  Paul Rice, we scoured the pictorial images to see if there is any evidence of subject matter that would cause the dating to spill over into Div III space. We found none. In addition, we looked for images that should have been there if the buttons were made after 1918. We found two interesting "circumstantial evidence" examples. First, we have seen no early aircraft other than a pre-1910 Zeppelin. German airplanes did not emerge into the public view until about 1915.  We feel that one or more would be there if these buttons were made during or after WW-I. Second, Albert Einstein is one of the most famous Germans known world-wide and should logically show up in Germanic themed buttons. He published his now famous E=mc2 in 1905 and his famous Theory of  Relativity in 1916. So where is the Einstein 3rd Avenue?  It turns out that his world recognition did not occur until a famous solar eclipse proved his revolutionary theory in 1919 and he was awarded the Nobel prize in 1922. We conclude he was a little late to the party for the 3rd Avenues. Nevertheless, if I happen to find examples in either of these areas, they will be reported in future revisions.

Paul and I have collaborated to develop a 3rd Avenue tool for collectors that does not rely on another 20 year lapse until another writer (clearly not us due to our ages) looks for new finds and further information. We are going to develop a set of worksheets that will contain all the buttons on these pages plus copies of pictures or descriptions of other known 3rd Avenue buttons not yet included. The worksheets will be available for printing to any who are interested. They can be easily updated as new information and new buttons are identified.  Phase I of this effort is complete which includes work sheets for all the buttons from my collection to date and shown herewith.  See the link at the bottom of each page to obtain the worksheets. Phase II will be complete in the next few months and will include all the buttons I have obtained plus pictures of those that are not in my collection.

I believe that many of you have 3rd Avenue buttons including some that are not on these pages.  I hope you will feel the urge to experience a "Darwinian moment" and contribute to the effort to bring these fascinating buttons into full view. See the block below for hints on how to identify the 3rd Avenues and how to help me make this a living process. I thank you in advance for collaborating in this effort.

Identification:  Most are small at 11/16“.  I have one that is smaller at  5/8”, three that are 3/4” and one round medium.  Most are round but there are a few are oblong which, so far, are all medium. They have been reported as tested at .800+ silver but there is no silver mark (See note at bottom of page). Most have no border (2 exceptions so far).  There are back marks on one group that reads "Knopf König GRAZ".  One part of this group has the back mark close in around the shank and the other has the back mark at the outer diameter of the back - maybe to make the letters larger and easier to read.  There is a second group that has no back mark.  So far, most examples in religious or religion related category are unmarked.
Participating in the Project: Armed with this information and the pictures and worksheets provided, I hope this will increase your enjoyment and learning, and help you identify more of these beauties in your collection. When you find examples not yet shown, I ask that you please send picture(s) or other information so I can continue the inventory and update the worksheets for all of you.  There are many on these pages that have not yet surrendered their identification. If you’re able to identify one, please send me the information and it will be used to update the project and shared with everyone. Please share this article and the revisions on the 3rd Ave. Traders website with your button friends who are not online.  You may send anything you find to Bardon56@aol.com or 1157 N. Bayshore Drive, Valparaiso ,FL 32580. Again, I thank you for any contribution.
Don Lanier    

Acknowledgements:  My deepest gratitude to Lucille Weingarten, Bud and Connie Weiser, Barbara and Tom Barrans, Annie Frasier, Sue Marsh, Laurella Lederer, Renee Comeau, Amber Seward, William Hentges, Dr. Barbara Steingiesser of Meerbusch, Germany, and Members of the U.S. Embassy, Vienna, Austria. Special thanks to Paul Rice who collaborated in expanding certain areas of the research on the 3rd Avenue buttons, photographed the buttons shown on these pages, and who made the Button Country website available for this ongoing project.

(1)  Charles W. Bush,  Just Buttons - March, 1953 and April, 1953
(2)  Elizabeth Hughes & Marion Lester -  Big Book of Buttons, 2010. 2nd edition
(3)  Just Buttons Editor, Just Buttons - February, 1954
(4)  Charles W. Bush,  Just Buttons - March, 1954
(5)  Kitty Dillon, National Button Bulletin - May, 1993
(6)  National Button Bulletin Editor, National Button Bulletin - May, 1997
(7)  Elizabeth Hughes, National Button Bulletin - February, 2012

Note: Several of the references refer to the 3rd Avenue buttons as silver or white metal with silver content since they tarnish and can be polished like silver. One source reported that the buttons had been tested at "0.800+ Silver but reported no supporting documentation of such a test. Thus, the author has added to his follow-up research actions to validate the silver assumption (or not).