Many think that buttons initially (during the Bronze Age) served merely as decoration and that it wasn’t until Medieval times that their use as clothing fasteners was “discovered.” A museum in Europe houses a kingly garment from the 15th century that contains over 13,000 buttons! Throughout history, buttons people have manufactured buttons out of almost every conceivable materials: bone, antler, hoof, minerals, gems, glass, metal, nuts, seeds, shell, and plastics of all kinds.
|Simple bone buttons–not worth a whole lot.|
The earliest buttons, dating back to the Bronze age, were made individually, hand-carved one at a time out of natural materials like bone, wood, and shell. In the photo above you can tell that the two buttons on the bottom would have been made to match each other, but they are not in fact identical. The spacing of the holes is different because the work was done by hand, not by machine.
Made from the shin bones of cattle, bone buttons would be typically used for undergarments. The button-maker would soak the bone in water, slice it thinly with a saw, and then shape the pieces into buttons by hand. Later, machinery would cut slabs of bone into discs, much like mother-of-pearl buttons (below). Bone buttons weigh more than plastic buttons and they feel dry to the touch.
The pearly insides of oyster shell provide the source of Mother-of-Pearl (MOP) buttons, primarily from the South Pacific.
Eventually, it was discovered that the pearly surface of mussel shells common in the Mississippi could also be used for buttons. At one point manufacturers harvested over 6000 pounds of mussels per day from the Mississippi to keep up with demand.
On the backs of some MOP buttons the outer portion of the shell can be seen.
Because the shells are quite brittle, they must be soaked in water for about a week prior to being cut into buttons. The Milton Historical Society of Delaware has a very informative website about the process, including several very interesting videos. Because it is a natural material, it feels cold to the touch, unlike plastic, which can be made to look like MOP, and does not feel cool.
|Jet buttons are quite collectible. Depending on their condition and your market,
they can sell for $1 (small one) up to $3 (my large one) and on up to hundreds even thousands of dollars.
Jet buttons have the appearance and and feel of black glass, but jet is a natural substance mined on the east coast of England and is considered a minor gemstone. Like diamonds, it is the product of high pressure decomposition of wood. While jewelers have used jet for centuries, the fashion-istas from the Victorian period went crazy for it. I personally love jet buttons and beads and own several pieces of jet jewelry.
|You can see on the back of these buttons the metal shank adhered to the back.|
Called French Jet, the glass version of jet feels colder and heavier than the real McCoy, which is warmer and less reflective. John Felton in an article about this gem provides two tests to determine authenticity: what I call the hot poker test and the streak test. Another identifier applies only in the case of damaged jet, which unfortunately happens all too often, and that is that the chips will be shell-shaped. John provides a good photograph of just such a chip. To learn more about jet, read John Felton’s article.
Early manufacture of glass buttons in the 18th century involved slicing glass rods, and then grinding and polishing each button.
Glass buttons can be differentiated from plastic by their coolness to touch and by the clinking sound they make when tapped against your teeth or each other. Glass buttons are also heavier than plastic. [The above set of glass buttons sold for $3.95 in 2014.]
Around 1830, buttons began to be produced in molds, with a metal shank inserted into the molten glass, as you see here.
We know these glass buttons date from the early 20th century because of its “self” shank. Meaning the shank is part of the body of the button and not applied separately.
|For sale by heartfelt handiwork on Etsy for $7.50|
In the early years, wooden buttons would have been carved by hand and would have had a look similar to bone buttons (above)–with the larger, unevenly spaced holes. By 1835, they were being produced on lathes in Connecticut from apple, yew, and boxwood. Above are some more modern, yet still vintage, wooden buttons, hand-painted with lily of the valley.
Tips for cleaning butttons of all sorts can be found at Buttons In Time.
Cast Iron Trivets
|Cast Iron Trivets|
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My sources for this button post:
Brock, Jamie. HubPages. Vintage Button Guide: Ways to Identify Antique Buttons. March 19, 2014
Wei, Jerilee. HubPages. The Story of Buttons. March 28, 2014.
abutton lady.com/workshop. March 28, 2014
Button Country. National Button Society. March 31, 2014
Connecticut State Button Society. “Connecticut History of Button Making.”
The DAACS Cataloging Manual: Buttons.
Grandmother’s Buttons. March 31, 2014
The Peacock Box. Identifying Glass Buttons. March 31, 2014