A Fashionable Tulip Button

Diane Shewchuk, Curator

 

It’s almost tulip time in Albany and Washington Park will soon be filled with bold, bright tulips of every color and style. However, this year, the 72nd Annual Tulip Festival will be celebrated online instead of in the park. In honor of the festival, I’d like to show you a group of novelty buttons in our collection that were designed by Marion Weeber (1905-2000). Albany native Marion Weeber may not be a household name, but to enthusiastic button collectors, her works are highly sought after.

Marion was head of the art department at the W. M. Whitney Company store in Albany prior to opening her own design studio in Manhattan in 1939. Among her first product designs were printed table linens, kerchiefs, costume jewelry, and compacts. Soon after, she became known for the whimsical buttons, often called “realistics” she designed for the dress trade. Dubbed a “petite whirlwind of energy,” she worked exclusively under the La Mode brand for B. Blumenthal and Company, Inc.

 

 

 

Jewelry and buttons should have character. They can be extremely simple with dash, or be very elegant and dramatic, or again be downright clever and amusing. A simple basic dress or suit leads a merry life if you'll let it.

Marion Weeber, 1941

The fashion to wear playful buttons in the 1940s may have been inspired by the unusual buttons Italian-born, Parisian fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli started adding to her whimsical and highly original fashions in the late 1930s. Schiaparelli’s use of shaped buttons in the forms of vegetables, ships, playing cards, and tambourines, among others was well-known since newspapers around the country (including Albany) ran articles about her and her 1941 lecture tour through the United States.

Marion Weeber designed two button collections a year, one for spring and one for fall and within each collection there were themes. She also designed sweater clips and pins to match her buttons. Created for Spring 1941, “Planting Time” buttons in “sun-kissed” colors were meant to liven up the dreariest of wartime wardrobes. Wartime restrictions created a need to update fashions inexpensively. The Institute’s collection includes this salesman’s sample board that shows tulip themed buttons.

 

Fresh tulips aren’t suitable for corsages, so Marion created a matching brooch of six long-stemmed tulips that could be pinned on a lapel, hat, or used as a hair clip. Newspapers from New York to Mobile advertised “Planting Time” buttons and encouraged readers to “Meet springtime halfway by perking up your basic dress with gay tulip blossoms.”

 

A shortage of metals during World War II, made early plastics like celluloid the material of choice for buttons. Celluloid was moldable and could be manufactured in a variety of colors at low-cost. Each part of the tulip button was molded separately than glued together. With Marion’s attention to detail, it was the perfect medium. However, her use of plastic has since created condition problems. The buttons are inherently not stable and frequently fall apart. Consequently, not many of Marion’s buttons survive, which makes them highly prized by collectors. 

 

During the 1940s, many women still made their own clothes and war shortages forced them to revamp their old ones or “Make Do and Mend.” Sewing baskets were a necessary part of life. As part of LaMode’s advertising campaign, a leaflet was created with suggestions for ten unusual ways to wear buttons. Marion herself posed for the cover photograph wearing the tulip buttons and pin as a hair clip.

 

Life was challenging during World War II, however women still wanted something new to wear. LaMode encouraged American women to visit the notions counter at their local store and buy a few of Marion’s buttons to transform something already in their wardrobe. How simple was that? Turn the radio on, sit down with a needle, thread, and button and in a matter of an hour, you’ve turned a plain boring sweater into something flirty and fun. And you didn’t have to fuss with making those tricky buttonholes because the suggestions in the brochure are all decorative and not functional! Never mind that great care had to be taken when washing the garment.

 

Marion revisited the tulip as a design element in another button she designed for Spring 1948. Six of Marion’s new button designs were advertised in the trade periodical Notion and Novelty Review with the title “Easter Paraders” and copy that boasted about Marion’s “fertile, designing brain.” In 1945, Marion married Paul Welsh, but continued to use her maiden name professionally. They met when both were working at Whitney’s in Albany.

 

Notice the button of three tulips in a wooden shoe called Dutch Treat over the model’s head. Our collection includes examples of all the other buttons advertised except for Dutch Treat. However, we do own a drawing of the collection that she named Dutch Treat or Tulip Time showing this button.

 

The Institute owns dozens of Weeber’s drawings for buttons, but it is rare that we have the actual drawing for a button that went into production since it was likely kept by the company. Marion’s creativity did not end with buttons. During the 1940s, she was simultaneously designing other products. In 1945, Marion designed a group of sterling silver bookmarks including this one with a tulip motif that she donated to the Institute in 1994.

 

In 1994, Marion Weeber presented the museum with a gift of 161 objects associated with her forty-year career in industrial and jewelry design. Buttons were not part of this gift. In 1998, the Albany Institute organized the exhibition Marion Weeber: Industrial Designer. Marion worked closely on the exhibition with Chief Curator Tammis Groft. Buttons were not included in this exhibition. Upon Marion’s death in 2000, we learned that Marion had bequeathed more examples of her work and archival materials to the Institute. A few months later, a small group of us drove to Marion’s New York City apartment to see the objects listed in the bequest. At that initial visit, we discovered a closet full of the button sample boards including Planting Time. We were stunned because Marion never talked about designing buttons. We were excited to add 36 salesman’s sample button boards to our collection along with archival materials and drawings documenting this part of Marion’s career. Representatives from the Cooper-Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum were also present because that museum was also listed in her will. They also own a number of her button sample boards.

As for Planting Time – it seems that Marion used that overarching theme for a pansy button she designed for Spring 1941 and again for a group of gardening inspired buttons for Spring 1942.

 

And in the spirit of Marion, always keep “in mind that many a this year’s dress can be perked up next year by the simple substitutions of new buttons” and that “you can blossom forth with buttons and earrings to match too, simply by purchasing two additional buttons and exercising the use of a little household glue.” 

I had the great pleasure of meeting Marion when she was at the museum working on her exhibition and champion her work whenever I can.  

May 1, 2020