Reminisce: Bertha Beam’s buttons

A stack of yellowing index cards two inches high catalog Bertha R. Beam’s donations to the Allen County Museum. From programs for the Ziegfeld follies to a net used to keep flies off horses, Beam’s donations were many and various.

During her long life, Beam was a collector of almost everything and gave much of it to the museum. Among her donations were books, a dining car menu, turn-of-the century-yearbooks from Lima High, a large black ostrich feather fan, a Farmer’s Almanac from 1860, a plate featuring a picture of Memorial Hall surrounded by pictures of other Lima buildings in the early 20th century which was sold at the 1908 Grand Army of the Republic convention in Lima, a pupil’s desk from Lima’s old East school building and on and on.

Beam also gave generously of her time, serving on the board of the Allen County Historical Society from 1937 to 1971.

When she died in May 1974, her will stipulated that 5 percent of her estate go to the Allen County Historical Society “to be used for the safekeeping and display of any collections which donor may give or bequeath to said Society or for capital improvements or rehabilitation of the Society’s property.”

Among the collections she bequeathed to the museum was her collection of buttons — thousands upon thousands of buttons Beam had been collecting since childhood. Many of these buttons can be seen on display at the Allen County Museum.

According to the Reporter, a publication of the Allen County Historical Society, “At the age of 5, a button from Bertha’s coat started her first string of buttons and her lifelong interest in them. … There are religious buttons, military buttons, Civil War buttons, buttons about the opera, paperweight buttons, buttons from work clothes, glass glories and many others. Mrs. Beam took buttons to state and national button shows and for several years was on their boards of judges.”

Bertha Beam the button collector was born Bertha Ryan on Feb. 5, 1880, in Bradford, Pennsylvania, to George A. and Saphronia Lawrence Herrick Ryan. Her father was an oil man, who moved his family to Bowling Green and then to Lima while Bertha was a young girl in grade school.

“Here she lived, first at Circular and Central, and then, on West North, and finally, over 50 years in the stone bungalow at 1015 W. High St.,” according to the Reporter. That stone bungalow once stood at the southwest corner of High and Charles streets.

After graduation from Lima High School in June 1900, Bertha married Fred C. Beam, a telegrapher for the Buckeye Pipeline Company.

“The bride is one of the fair graduates of the class of 1900 at Lima High School and has numerous friends who will be surprised to hear of her marriage but will wish her a happy future with the man of her choice who is employed by the Buckeye Pipe Line Co. at Adgate station,” the Lima Times-Democrat wrote Sept. 26, 1900.

Frederick C. Beam was a young man on the move. In 1902, he was nominated and elected clerk of city council, and the following year was easily elected to the newly created position of city auditor, a position he served in for 12 years.

While her husband was winning praise for his work as city auditor — a 1908 newspaper story stated he “has carefully and courteously fulfilled the trust given him in 1903” — his wife was entrenching herself in Lima society.

“Friday last was a day of June sunshine just fitted for recreation, and pretty spring and summer toilettes (a small piece of cloth worn over the shoulder) were worn by the numerous ladies attending the reception given by Mrs. John R. Sinclair and her daughter Mrs. F.C. Beam (Bertha’s father died in 1899 and her mother remarried) at the Sinclair Home on west North Street,” the Lima Times-Democrat wrote June 14, 1904. “Rich red roses were well placed in the drawing room, while the library was a bower of green and pink asparagus vines mingling with peonies.”

During the summer months, the party moved to Maine.

“The Beams loved their summer home at ‘Pinneo Point’ (in) Harrington, Maine, where they spent three or four months each summer,” the Reporter wrote. “Many friends visited them there through the years, enjoying their specialty of fresh boiled Maine lobster cooked in a huge black kettle in the yard.”

The Beams, the Reporter noted, “had a happy life together” until Fred’s death in the mid-1940s.

“Thereafter, any day, you might have found Bertha and her companion of 41 years, Bee Daub, poring over her button collection, sorting, arranging and mounting according to size and category each precious button,” the Reporter shared.

Beam’s buttons were featured in a 1948 story in The Lima News.

“Button, button, who’s got the button is a phrase which has plenty of meaning for Mrs. F.C. Beam, 1015 W. High St., who has 12,000 of them,” the newspaper wrote July 4, 1948. “Some 6,000 of them are mounted on trays, while the other 6,000 are waiting to be mounted.”

Button collecting had attracted so many people by 1948 that it was, behind stamp collecting, second on the world list of hobbies, The Lima News wrote. Beam, district director of the Buckeye Button Society, had started early and, when the hobby began to take hold in the United States, “she was fairly well on her way with a nice collection.”

“Buttons first were used for ornament, but since then have been put to more practical use, although they are still ornamental,’” Beam told The Lima News.

Among Beam’s prized possessions was a tray of buttons from Lima tailoring firms with names such as Thompson and Gilles, Nelson and Herbst, Summers and Gilles, Albert Gale, Furnas and Warner and Co. appearing on the edges of the buttons.

“After looking over the many different kinds of buttons Mrs. Beam has, one can’t help but note that a small fortune must be tied up in this hobby. And this, by the way, isn’t her only hobby. She also collects trivets (an iron tripod for a cooking pot), bottles, decanters and perfume bottles, all of which are equally complete and tell many interesting stories,” the newspaper wrote.

In May 1959, Beam helped arrange for the annual show of the Buckeye State Button Society at the Allen County Museum.

“About 100 persons visited the museum to view the samples brought in by dealers and collectors of Ohio and out of state,” the Lima Citizen reported May 3, 1959. “Among the more beautiful buttons in the collection were Japanese hand-painted ones. These colorfully designed items supported the view that buttons are, in a sense, ‘a cultural art,’ as one of the dealers claimed.”

Beam died in 1974 at the age of 94. Shortly after her death, the Reporter noted her long association with the Allen County Historical Society, which began when it was still located in Memorial Hall.

“In January 1938, she was elected to its board of trustees, becoming treasurer in 1940 and serving in that capacity until shortly before her death May 1, 1974,” the Reporter shared. “As she wrote checks for the construction work of the museum, she often laughed, ‘I paid for the museum!’”


This feature is a cooperative effort between the newspaper and the Allen County Museum and Historical Society.


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