Tell me a bit about yourself.
I live and work in Logan Square [in Chicago] and have for about seventeen years. I started Busy Beaver when I was 23, and I was in a punk band. No one was really making the traditional one-inch punk-size pins, and so I wanted to be part of that DIY scene, and that’s how I got started. Outside of Busy Beaver, I like fixing up old buildings, I like the decorative arts.
I was born in Indiana and grew up in western New York state. I went to college at Indiana University. I was restless, or maybe curious is a better word. I was back and forth from IU and FIT in New York City. I worked full-time in fashion and took classes in the evenings. I went back to Bloomington and discovered feminist theory. I wanted to work as an editor for a fashion magazine, and then when I discovered feminist theory I was like, “I don’t want to do this anymore!” I moved to Paris to keep studying. I was way in over my head as a 22-year-old trying to figure all of this stuff out, especially in French. It’s funny to me now, but one of my teachers told me, “You’re the bravest young woman I know.” I came back to the states and moved back to Bloomington to take some classes, and that’s when the button company began.
How did you go from 22 in Paris studying feminist theory to 23 in Indiana and starting a button company?
I think in kind of a weird way it makes sense. I like the idea of signifiers and how they work in our language and the way we communicate. Buttons are a great signifier, on a human level, on a street style level. I’ve always been fascinated by messaging and how we communicate. Buttons are a part of that, like it’s a way we talk with each other.
I moved from Bloomington to San Francisco, which was where most of my early customers were. Then I headed to Chicago, partially because of a relationship that ended up ending, which worked out okay. It’s really home now. I love it.
What is Busy Beaver?
We make pinback buttons, stickers, and other promotional items. We’ve been in business for 26 years. We make all of our buttons in a solar-powered facility in Chicago. As a group of artists, we really value helping organizations of all types spread their message and facilitate connections with others and with their communities. We want to make it easy for people to build community and share these small items. With buttons alone we’ve helped people share 53 million times, since we’ve made that many buttons.
How do you see buttons as a tool for social change?
In order to have buttons made you have to have something you’re trying to move the needle on. You order a button in hopes other people will wear them. I think there’s that initial connection with that person they’re building community with, and then that person wearing the button they share with their community. Every person, depending how often you go out, or whether you know there is a pandemic or not, you see like 40 people in a day. It’s a quiet thing people can wear and literally stand behind. It’s more intimate than sharing on social media, but it’s a similar sharing of messaging and design.
It’s a way to make a statement and quite literally wear something you believe in.
Right, and afterward it’s a memento. It’s a reminder of something you care about, or still do.
What is a favorite button slogan that you’ve seen?
This one is really hard! I have a real soft spot for Planned Parenthood. I relied on them so much as a younger person. There’s one they did that was so clever: “Don’t f*ck with us, don’t f*ck without us.”
26 years is a long time, and I imagine you’ve seen some significant changes. How have you been able to roll with those changes over time?
It’s been incremental. When I started, the internet wasn’t really a thing. When I first bought my machine, I went to the library and looked through the registry and made long distance calls.You couldn’t go online and search “button maker” or something. People would mail in their designs with a check. Nothing was done as e-commerce. Thinking back to those letters I would get, it was such a tight community of people trying to make a difference or promote their business. It felt really connected between me and the customers. In 1998 I made our first informational website. Maybe a year or two later, we started accepting money digitally and then came the website where you could order, and now we maybe get three orders a year that aren’t online, and those are from the old-timers. That’s a huge difference.
It seems like so much has changed around you like with technology and e-commerce for example, but buttons have been this classic unchanging way of making a statement.
Really the technology of making buttons hasn’t changed much since 1896 when they were invented. I put out a book last year that I’ve worked on for like ten years. It’s a survey of 125 years of buttons. What’s cool about that is some of the principles haven’t changed. People want to wear a button that looks cool and has some kind of connection to them. It really hasn’t changed, and there is really nothing else like them that you can share and wear like that.
The biggest honor of owning this business is getting to work with the people I work with here. We call it “The Dam.” Everyone here is so great, and we appreciate each other and our customers. I love being a hub for people who are up to stuff. We get to help them spread their message, and that’s really special.
You can check out Busy Beaver Button Co. at busybeaver.net.