Button Mosaics

The Wonderful Art of Norman Engler by Paul Rice

Norman EnglerThe Man - His name was Norman C. Engler. He was a member of the National Button Society. He was a member and Chairman of the Board of the Minnesota State Button Society in the early 1940s. Later he was President of the Kansas State Button Society and remained a member of all three of these societies into the 1950s. Most importantly, he was an artist who loved buttons and used them to create fascinating mosaic pictures that portrayed a remarkable panorama of American history.

The Quest - I came to know of Norman Engler in late 2007 after stumbling upon some postcards that contained images of folk art of impressive achievement. My initial research uncovered an article in the September, 1950 National Button Bulletin that identified Mr. Engler as the artist and creator. My interest in this art was initiated based on several cards of buttons in the collection handed down to me from my grandmother. She had created four cards of buttons that were mounted in the form of pictures including a southern belle made from calico buttons and a flower basket created from a wide and colorful range of buttons. Today, we would call her effort creative mounting. While it was simple, I thought of it in terms of her artful touch. So when I saw the large and complex mosaic pictures by Norman Engler, I was hooked and the search was on.

Crazy HorseMy button friends responded to my questions with additional pictures of the mosaic art, new examples of postcards showing the mosaics, and a special assist from a Missouri collector who knew that many of the mosaics remained with Norman Engler’s son, Peter Engler, in Branson, Missouri. Peter Engler graciously agreed to assist me in my research of his father’s work and in February, 2008, I traveled to Branson to learn more and photograph the mosaics. My initial goal was to simply make the digital images and background information available to other collectors with like interest. Once there however, my goals expanded. It was clear that 75 years of transporting, showing, and storing the mosaics had taken a significant toll. I became motivated to digitally restore both the images I took in Branson and the images on film taken more than 50 years earlier. My goal was to preserve the mosaics, using pictures, so that button and folk art enthusiasts could continue to see the mosaics in a condition that would better represent their original state. It took more than six months to accomplish this task. The results are imperfect and I regret any errors that have crept in due to such factors as "guessing" the original fabric colors or "fixing" some of the buttons, mainly celluloid, that have predictably self-destructed with time.

ParrotThe History – Norman Engler was born in Jordan, Minnesota in 1893. He married Ida Carter who became an integral part of the team that created the mosaics. They both came from families of collectors and their grandmothers, who were described as hopelessly romantic, had assembled charm strings that were passed down to Norman and Ida. Although newspaper accounts vary, their idea to create a unique way to display buttons was inspired in the late 1920s after seeing the creative display of buttons either at a PTA meeting, a state fair, or a bazaar - probably all three. Before the mid-1930s they had created several of the button mosaics starting with the Parrot and Peacock and finished the last of the mosaics, The Last Supper, in the mid-1950s. Ida, who had once created oil paintings, performed research and prepared sketches and Norman assembled the buttons into the mosaics and did the sewing. Ida once opined that “while Norman was a genius at sewing buttons on the cloth backgrounds for pictures, he was unable to sew a button on a shirt.” Mr. Engler was a salesman for a Kansas salt company and was able to engage his clients in discussions of hobbies and became the recipient of numerous button donations. He stated that many of the donors would never sell their family buttons but gave them to him to be displayed in his art. He died in Fayetteville, Arkansas in 1958.

The Mosaics – The Englers created a series of 16 button mosaic pictures between about 1930 and 1955. They ranged from two by two and a half feet to eight by three plus feet. The number of buttons used varied widely. The first mosaic, the Parrot, was made from slightly less than a thousand buttons while Pilgrims Going to Church used about 60,000 buttons. This latter work has a background formed solidly of buttons, which contrast with a second and third layer of buttons used to outline the picture. He used a “no harm” practice of attachment and explained that “every button is fastened with three stitches of linen thread coated with bee’s wax for permanent preservation.” He estimated that an average of 1000 hours went into the sewing of the buttons. Considering the mosaic of Chief Crazy Horse with 20,000 buttons, sewing on one button every minute would take about 350 hours. Taking into account the time for selection, placement, and rework, the actual time would be several fold greater. 

His work won many awards including blue ribbons at the 1941 and 1942 National Hobby Shows for Chief Crazy Horse and Spirit of 76 respectively.  His Country Church mosaic won the sweepstakes prize at the National Button Show in Chicago in 1942. From a 1944 interview in the Hutchinson Kansas News, Mr. Engler stated “My favorite is the smallest and the least brilliant of the lot. It is the scene - only two feet square - of a plain little Country Church against a background of quiet snow. The beauty of the shifting variety of lights coming from the one small window seems almost perfect to me.” He said he would never consider selling any of the mosaics - and he never did.

The difficulties in taking care of the collection were significant. For a number of years Mr. Engler exhibited in museums, hobby and button shows, button society meetings and even events for school children. But, as he stated, “very seldom was a picture returned with all its parts still sewed on straight.” Seeing them in person makes it clear as to the size of the challenge. Some are very large and heavy. Consider that Dawning of a new Day is eight feet by four feet in a heavy antique frame or that Pilgrims Going to Church is more than four feet by five feet with 60,000 buttons. The effort to preserve the mosaics was the main reason for the Englers moving to Arkansas where, in the early 1950s, they displayed the mosaics in their large gift shop and soda fountain named “Where-Away."  The name “Where-Away” comes from a poem by James Whitcomb Riley, which describes a man’s search for something he never finds. They were a major tourist attraction in the area near Bull Shoals Dam.  Engler described an unusual but effective plan for cleaning the mosaics when they lived in Minnesota. When a hard driving snow storm came, he’d take the pictures outside and stake them down. The wind would whip through the buttons and remove the dust, like sand blasting. He explained that “the snow there is dry, and will brush off without making a spot. Because Arkansas snow is moist, this method isn’t possible in Arkansas”.

American EagleThe Accolades and Anecdotes – Among the letters and newspaper articles graciously provided from Peter Engler’s scrapbook, there are many accolades for the work of his father and mother. For example, in a letter reporting on the December, 1943 Minnesota State Button Meeting, Ethel Hillis, President of the Minnesota State Button Society writes: “Our November gathering was in keeping with our objectives and goal – an inspirational meeting. The piece-de-resistance of the meeting was the talk of Chairman Norman C. Engler of the Board of Directors, of Mankato; on the art of picture making with buttons and having on display one of his famous pictures, “The Spirit of 76.” As both artist and collector, Mr. Engler deserves all homage, his artistic workmanship deserving National recognition and worthy of a better write-up than I could give.” 

On a more humorous note, Mr. O. C. Lightner, editor of Hobbies-The Magazine for Collectors provided advice to Norman Engler in a letter dated May 13, 1942. He stated “I saw a lot of women looking at your buttons and remarking that you spoiled some very good collectors’ items by putting them in a pictorial of that kind. You could do that with common buttons. You had some buttons there worth $1 or $2 apiece…… If I were you and had a good many buttons, it would certainly pay to buy the books, OLD BUTTONS & THEIR VALUES ($1.25) and BUTTON CLASSICS, ($5.00)."

In a Manhattan, Kansas Mercury newspaper article dated November 20, 1949 the writer raises the issue about naming the artwork. She states that ”The Englers call them ‘mosaics’. Art students murmur words like ‘impressionism’, ‘pointillism’, and ‘new medium’. Some folks insist they’re merely ‘paintings’. But whatever these objects of art are called, most critics agree that when seen as a whole, the content of these 15 Engler frames make a remarkable panorama of American history.” I certainly take no issue with the naming and neither does my version of Webster’s dictionary.  For those who enjoy history and nostalgia, I have included a section, accessed from the "Mosaic Index", with the two letters referenced above along with a 1942 Hobbies magazine report on the “Highlights of the 3rd National Button Show”. Fun excerpts include "buttons which were donated to the Society were auctioned off during the show thus increasing the Society’s fund by $90.35" and "The Monadnock, N. H. Button Club, with a small membership, started to raise money about two years ago to send a delegate to the 1941 National Button Show. By small button gifts to the club treasury, bridge parties, and other local events, they achieved their goal, and sent Mrs. Dorothy Morey, club president, to bring back news of the big event.”

The Digital Tour – My imperfect attempt to digitally restore images of the 16 mosaics to an earlier, more original condition was flawed for several reasons. First was the skill of this author. Second was the deterioration of the mosaics, especially the frames and background fabrics as a result of 75 plus years of handling, transportation, and the elements. (Who among you will reach 75 without some significant deterioration?) The third challenge relates to the images themselves. For the nine mosaics I was able to photograph, the challenge was mainly one of getting images sharp enough to see the buttons, dealing with the normal distortions that occur when you photograph a large object up close, and guessing at original colors. For the seven I could not photograph, old 35mm film and slides were provided by Peter Engler which, as would be expected, have significantly faded with age and lack the resolution to magnify the images. No whining here. Just an explanation that some of the images you will see are fairly sharp with excerpts magnified so you can see the details of some of the individual buttons used in the mosaics. The remaining nine from the older film could not be shown to the same detail as the contemporary images but are included so you can experience the whole family of mosaics. Click on the following button and enjoy. 

The Acknowledgements – I extend my sincere appreciation to Peter Engler for sharing the mosaics, his family scrapbook, and other biographical materials. I also thank him for allowing me to publish the results of my effort on the Button Country website for the enjoyment of button collectors everywhere. I also thank his colleagues and staff for their assistance in gathering materials and assisting with the photography. Anyone traveling in the Branson, Missouri area should visit the Peter Engler Designs shop where you may be able to see one of the button mosaics on display. The wonderful woodcarvings by many artists will take your breath away.  I am also grateful to the many collectors and friends who have sent me photographs, postcards, relevant information on the mosaics, and other examples of folk art using buttons. Special thanks to Carol Janovsky, a Buttonbytes friend, who identified the location of the mosaics and put me in touch with Peter Engler.  Thanks to all who have helped. The picture of Norman Engler at the top of this page is a hand carved, painted portrait created by his son, Norman Engler Jr. Surely there was a genetic predisposition to the arts in the Engler family.