Hi there!Today I’m going to be talking about vintage and antique buttons. By examining some of the buttons that I have in stock, we’ll learn about the history, value, and manufacturing process of bone, shell, jet, glass, and wood buttons.
Over the course of the 17 years that I’ve been buying and selling antiques, I’ve learned a little bit about a lot of different types of antiques. So right up front, I’ll tell you I’m not a button expert, but I have sold quite a few buttons in my day.
A museum in Europe houses a kingly garment from the 15th century that contains over 13,000 buttons!
Throughout history, people have manufactured buttons out of almost every conceivable materials: bone, antler, hoof, minerals, gems, glass, metal, nuts, seeds, shell, wood, leather, and plastics of all kinds.
Buttons make a great collectible for many reasons, for one, they are small so they don’t take up a lot of space, which is great if you have hoarding tendencies. This factor makes them easily displayed in a variety of ways. Go farmhouse style and place them in canning jars or frame some sewn to card stock.
Buttons offer a variety of categories for the collector to pick and choose from, era, color, style, or material, for example. One could decide to collect metal buttons or more specifically sterling silver and even more specifically French sterling silver buttons made in the 18th century(!).
These small collectibles, overlooked by most people, reflect the culture of the time in which they were made, by their design and materials used. Researching a flea market find can therefore be a fascinating experience.
The craftsmanship on some of the higher end examples is remarkable, involving intricate carving, minuscule paintings, or complex faceting. These can run into the hundreds of dollars, while a jar of vintage plastic buttons can be had for $5 or $10.00. While there can be a wide range of values among buttons, most of the ones I’m sharing today fall in the $1-5.00 range per button.
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.
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.
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 about 1835, Connecticut lathes were producing wooden buttons from apple, yew, and boxwood.
Unfortunately, I don’t currently own any buttons from either of these periods.
But I did recently purchase this set of wooden Mod buttons that would certainly make any article of clothing they adorned a statement piece.
And who doesn’t recognize these Paddington Bear-style toggle buttons?
Another batch of modern-style buttons. I’d imagine it would be difficult to create the correct-sized button holes for this triangular shape, right?
Pictorial buttons made of wood composition are quite collectible; I’m particularly fond of those molded into animals and ships. They range in value from $10 to $100 and on up.
I hope you enjoyed taking a look at vintage buttons crafted from bone, shell, jet, glass, and wood. In Part II of this series, we’ll look at buttons made of Bakelite, metal, leather, and plastic.
Tips for cleaning butttons of all sorts can be found at Buttons In Time.
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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