The first button Christen Carter, BA’94, ever bought was a yellow one-inch pin with an illustration of Snoopy and Woodstock on a unicycle. She was 12 years old.
Jump to 1995 and Carter—on a mission to repopularize buttons in the post-punk-rock scene—is launching Busy Beaver Button Co. out of her college apartment in Bloomington, Ind.
“My mom had an arithmetic book called Busy Beavers. I used to look at it all the time as a kid. That’s kind of how I came up with that name,” Carter says. “Plus, beavers are industrious creatures.”
Short on cash, Carter maxed out her credit card to buy her first button-making machine—a $400 investment that has resulted in a thriving business venture.
“My first machine was all manual. I cranked each button,” she explains. “Now the machines we have are electric—three buttons are made at a time.”
Individual customer orders tend to average around 1,500 buttons, but the Chicago-based entrepreneur says she doesn’t shy away from small jobs.
“We keep our minimums low so everyone can afford buttons,” Carter says, recalling a time when a kid from Cleveland placed a small order of buttons for his punk band. “That kid ended up being one of the designers that worked on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign logo. And we ended up making about a million buttons for her.”
The IU alum and her team produce more than four million buttons annually. How?
By sticking to the Busy Beaver values: “Be industrious. Work collaboratively. Think creatively. And give a dam,” Carter says.
*Why no “n”? Because they’re beavers, and beavers build dams. And they like puns.
In 2010, with the help of her brother, Joel, Carter opened the Busy Beaver Button Museum. Today, the museum is home to more than 40,000 buttons—and we asked Carter to share a few of her favorites.
If you had to pick just one, which button is your favorite?
Christen Carter: From the museum, it’s this one. I love how the celluloid was cut so that you can feel the felt of the hat. It was made sometime around 1920.
What is your favorite collection of buttons?
CC: I really like this series from the 1960s. Park Place Gallery in New York made them for a Rolling Stones concert in Central Park.
What button do you cherish the most?
CC: This is the first button I ever bought. I was 12 and so excited to have a piece of my beloved Snoopy and Woodstock.
Do you have any IU buttons in your collection?
CC: I always pick them up when I see them, I’m a proud IU grad! These were probably bought by me at an antique mall or flea market.
What is the most expensive button in your collection?
CC: This early Walt Disney character [Oswald the Lucky Rabbit] is worth $2,800. We actually had two of them, so we sold one to buy both the George Washington and Abraham Lincoln buttons. The Lincoln button [from 1864] is worth about $1,000 and the Washington button [from 1789] is worth roughly $1,800.
As far as the buttons you’ve been contracted to make, do you have a favorite?
CC: It’s got to be the first one. In August 1995, I made 500 buttons for Guided By Voices—one of my favorite bands. The first time I ever saw Guided By Voices, they played a three-hour show [in Bloomington, Ind.] at Second Story [a now-shuttered music venue].
Button Businesswoman appeared in the Original section of the Winter 2019 issue of the IU Alumni Magazine, a magazine for members of the IU Alumni Association. View current and past issues of the IUAM.
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