Sew there! Buttons can be a window on history

It’s not difficult to recognize buttons as miniature works of art. They can be simple, as seen in a faceted black glass button, or they can be elaborate, as in a carved Bethlehem pearl button. What many people don’t realize is how much history can be gleaned from the study of buttons.

Buttons, as we know them, are not as old as you would think. While button-like objects have been found throughout all human history, they were generally used as ornamentation or jewelry. This all changed when crusaders brought home samples of buttons and buttonholes from the Middle East in the 13th century. In order to realize how the button has evolved to its present day purpose, we need to revisit the progression of the Industrial Revolution.

European crafts guilds were created around the year 1250 A.D. in order to organize craftsmen and artisans. One of these guilds was for buttonmakers. Guild members dictated the trends of the day and their work was truly incredible, with an emphasis on quality. Buttons were marked and records were kept, documenting each artisan’s craft. At this point in history, buttons were jewels made in sets to be attached and removed each time the garment was worn. Artisans created stunning sets for the elite, crafting one button at a time, and using materials such as gold and silver set with jewels. Documents and letters from this time period tell of staggering sums of money being spent on buttons. Buttons have been found buried with prized jewelry, bequeathed in wills, and listed in household inventories. Royalty commissioned artists to make their buttons and kings adorned their garments with as many buttons as possible in order to show their superiority over another ruler; the old “he with the most buttons, wins!”

While the aristocracy enjoyed magnificent buttons, the common man wore buttons made of materials such as cloth, wood, bone, and leather. This was due, in part, to the prohibitive cost, but also due to a royal decree that dictated what the lower class could and could not wear. Buttons told society where you ranked on the social ladder.

By the 17th and 18th centuries, buttons were being made in a wide variety of materials and styles. France and England were the centers of industry. Artisans branched out and had very profitable sidelines making buttons. Weavers made woven buttons, potters made ceramic buttons, and so forth. Buttons increased in size and opulence. Activities of the day were often depicted on these buttons, like little history books for us to study. For the most part, buttons were mainly made for men’s clothing. Waistcoats, shirts and outer coats were covered with beautiful buttons, as many as 24 in a set. In addition to clothing, buttons were also used to fasten shoes and gloves. This means collectors today have a plethora of lovely buttons to collect.

American manufacturers had also begun making fine buttons; however, most were being imported from England. As talk of revolution grew, it became increasingly patriotic to wear only American-made buttons. Many patriotic craftsmen manufactured buttons made from wood, pewter, brass, and papier mâché in addition to their main craft. Phineas Pratt, a well-known manufacturer of piano keys, began making buttons from ivory. Patriot silversmith Paul Revere is said to have produced fine silver buttons.

As the Industrial Revolution progressed, demand for everyday objects like cloth and buttons grew. In America and Europe, factories began to produce many fine buttons in quantities not previously possible. Some of the finest buttons ever manufactured were crafted during the “Golden Age” of button making (in America: 1830-1850). Gilt buttons were crafted during this period. They were made using a mix of manufacturing methods and hand craftsmanship that produced a button of superior quality not seen before. Gilt buttons were first made in England but America was quick to learn the process. Sporting, military, and livery buttons made during this period are very collectable.

In addition to an increase in mass-production, new types of materials were being discovered. Hard rubber was introduced by the Goodyear brothers in 1849. The U.S. Navy used rubber buttons due to their durability. Leo Baekeland created the first true plastic in 1909. Bakelite, his creation, was used to make everything from buttons to telephones. In the 1920s, a German chemist, Herman Staudinger, studied the molecular makeup of plastics and was the first to use the term “polymers.” In the 1930s and 1940s, glass and plastic novelty buttons depicted every object imaginable. Shell and china buttons were also popular. China buttons, some with stenciled patterns on them, were an alternative to cloth buttons that wore out before the garment did. The majority of buttons purchased now were for use on women’s and children’s clothing. Unfortunately, progress, as we know, can be a two-edged sword. The Industrial Revolution that had been such a boon to the button industry now sent it into decline. Buttons were mass-produced as simply and cheaply as possible. What many people today picture in their mind as a button is the result of all this progress: a common, white shirt button, small and inconsequential.

Fortunately, for all of us, there are still artisans who believe beautiful buttons should be available for everyone to enjoy and treasure. Button clubs, such as the National Button Society, formed in 1938, have fought to preserve the integrity of buttons as historical artifacts and they have done a wonderful job of enlisting those who dictate button fashion. Thanks to the efforts of clubs and individual collectors, button collecting is alive and well all over the world.

Buttons of ceramic, china and glass

Ceramics is a general term and any button made from natural clay would be classified as such. Some ceramic buttons, such as chinas, may bear a likeness to glass. Both will feel cold on your cheek, but china button backs will have a gritty look to them where they rested while being fired. Ceramic buttons will often look “gritty,” especially under a magnifying glass. Ceramic buttons tend to be sew-throughs.
Because of their porous nature, ceramic buttons should not be cleaned with water, unless you are certain that they have been sealed and fired.

China buttons are a popular type of button. Calico china buttons were made to match fabrics of the period and can be found in more than 325 different documented patterns. Stenciled china buttons have a hand-painted (later sprayed on) design. These have also been cataloged and you may find numbers referenced with some patterns, referring to the documentation. Many collectors have cards with each pattern printed on them and a quest to find one of each pattern, size and color. I liken it to filling a bingo card, and just as much fun.

Glass buttons are probably the most plentiful, and, in my opinion, beautiful buttons available. Because of this, glass is a great and inexpensive place to start your button collection. You could even specialize in it and keep expanding your collection for many years to come.

Prior to World War II, America was supplied with glass buttons from Czechoslovakia. After WWII, there was a shift in industrial centers throughout Europe. Factories that had produced bombs and other weapons now found new purposes. The center for “modern” glass buttons was now in Germany.

By 1969, however, plastics were a more profitable commodity, and the supply of German glass buttons dwindled.

Recently, the market has been seeing more and more “new Czech” glass buttons.

There are a number of materials that can imitate glass. I use two common tests for glass.

First, glass is cool on your cheek, but so is china. Tap your button on your teeth. If you hear a sharp, clear clicking sound, you have a glass button; if the sound is dull, you do not.

This can take a little practice, but use a known glass button and compare its sound if need be.

Glass comes in a variety of colors, finishes, shapes and sizes and glass color is not always as easy to discern as you would think.


Carded buttons

Are buttons on the original cards worth more? Most serious collectors are not particularly interested in carded buttons, because you would not be able to use them in competition on the cards.

Many people who collect carded buttons do so primarily for the card, and secondly for the button, so condition would be important.
circus parade buttons

Set of five yellow, molded plastic “Circus Parade Buttons,” LeChic Buttons (B. Blumenthal Co.), 1930s, $25. Sets can be found off the original cards for about $15. Make sure they are all the same color and a complete set. Original cards in excellent condition are difficult to find. Fun sets like this are highly collectible.

lady washington pearl buttons

Five small carved and dyed MOP shirt buttons, Lady Washington Pearls, early to mid-1900s, $3. Carded Pearl buttons are plentiful, so condition of card should determine price. The color of these is very nice.

warman's buttons field guideWarman’s® Buttons Field Guide,
Values and Identification

By Jill Gorski

Retail: $12.99
Your price: $10.18

Available at