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What's Up Magazine

Vintage Buttons

Oct 18, 2011 09:38PM ● By Anonymous

Nowadays, fashion designers have a choice of zippers, hooks, snaps, velcro, and buttons when designing how to fasten together clothes, but a century ago, options were much more limited. Buttons, ribbons, or ties were sometimes the only choice. But buttons were not initially created as clothing fasteners. They actually got their start as a form of jewelry. The earliest “buttons” date back more than 4,500 years when they were primarily used for decoration. Ornamental pieces of pottery, metal, or stone were attached to clothing with pins or ties. However, written references to buttons do not appear until the 13th century.

Available buttons to collectors begin with 18th-century buttons made by artisans and jewelers. The finest buttons were made for men’s clothing and were at least 11⁄2 inches in diameter. These highly valued buttons were made of fine materials such as precious and semiprecious stones, enameled metal, ivory, porcelain, gold, silver, and embroidered fabric.

Another type of men’s buttons were made of metal and they were large and simpler in design. George Washington Inaugural buttons, for example, were created to commemorate the first and second inauguration of Washington in 1789 and 1793. They were made of copper, brass, or silver-plated copper and included at least 20 different designs such as President Washington’s portrait, eagles, and patriotic mottos.

The National Button Society has named more than 400 collector’s categories for button collecting, grouped by topic, material, or size. For display, buttons are mounted on white or ream cardboard and grouped together by date, material, category, or color. Rare or particularly attractive buttons are often displayed on their mounts in frames to be admired. Button collecting first began in the 1860s when young American women began assembling “charm strings” of at least 999 different buttons given to them by friends. According to one tradition, the girl’s true love would supply the final one-thousandth button to complete the string and then claim her as his bride.

Twenty-first century button collectors are often on the lookout for buttons made of celluloid and Bakelite (the pre-cursors of plastic) in unusual shapes along with buttons featuring cut steel and rhinestones.

A category of 19th century buttons, prized by collectors, are gilt buttons, which are made of brass with a thin wash of gold. The first gilt buttons were produced in Birmingham, England, at the start of the 19th-century. Initially simple in design, after the 1820s they became increasingly ornate. The gilt buttons were often stamped on the back with the date, manufacturer’s name, and other information.

Buttons should be taken out of closed containers such as boxes or jars because moisture can collect, which causes mold and rust. If you are in pursuit of antique buttons, ask at antique shops and flea markets, because they may not always be on display, or join a button collector’s club. To find out more about buttons, a good place to start is the National Button Society, founded in 1938. The website is National and the mailing address c/o secretary Susan Porter is 1564 Wilson Road, Ramona, California 92065. ■


From mother-of-pearl to brass washed with gold, buttons made of a variety of materials were saved from discarded garments for future use on another piece of clothing

Carved from a shell, lovely buttons such as this were often used on a summer blazer during the 1940s.

With so many different designs, textures, and styles—changing the buttons can change the outfit.

This rhinestone button from the 1950s may have been used as a purely decorative ornament on a dress or as the single fastener on an evening jacket.

Originally attached to cards when sold, some buttons were purchased but never used and are thus in mint condition.