A Guide to Vintage & Antique Buttons: Part II

Hi friends! Recently, I wrote a post about vintage buttons, taking a look at buttons made of bone, wood, jet, and shell. That was Collecting Vintage Buttons Part I, and today I’m finishing up with Part II, in which we’ll be considering buttons manufactured out of metal, Bakelite, porcelain, and plastic.

Later this week, I’ll be writing a post filled with button decorating ideas. I found some really great ways to use these little beauties in home decor, so be sure to check it out.

A Vintage & Antique Button Guide (Part II)

Vintage Metal Buttons

Metal buttons began to be manufactured in the 18th century, using a die cutting process on sheets of metal. Any embossed decoration would have been imprinted on the metal discs at the same time.

vintage metal navy buttonsMost military uniform buttons are made of metal and older ones are highly collectible. The buttons you see here, embossed with an eagle holding an anchor, came from US Navy uniforms.

vintage metal buttonsThe button on the left replicates an Austrian coin; in the center is another naval button; and on the right is an unidentified example with two griffons(?).

various backs of vintage metal buttonsThrough the years, metal buttons have been manufactured featuring a variety of different ways to attach them to garments. On the far left is a “shank” button, (maybe because it’s shaped like a lamb shank?) with a loop of wire for attachment to fabric.

The bigger gray button on the top right has a stamped and pierced back called a “self shank.” And the one on the far right has a bar that one can sew through for attachment to a garment.

vintage metal buttonsIn reading an interesting article about buttons in the online magazine, Slate, I learned that poorer families in colonial America had to make their own buttons and were considered lucky to own their own button molds. Pewter or other metal would have been melted and poured into the mold to fashion buttons for the family.

The variety of button shapes and designs in metal is virtually endless, as you can well imagine. The ones you see above are just some of the buttons that have passed through my hands.

vintage silver metal buttonsThey are like miniature works of art. Over the years, I’ve come across numerous vintage pairs of earrings made out of beautiful buttons by some frugal soul.

Antique Button Hooks

vintage button hooksButtons up to and including the 19th century often made a  real fashion statement, depending upon their quality, design, and uniqueness. The clothing of aristocrats and royalty might hold hundreds of buttons, leading in part to the need for servants to dress them.

And requiring, as well, special tools to accomplish the task–button hooks–for gloves, boots & shoes, and other apparel. Above are a pair that I inherited from my grandmother when she passed away at 89. The top hook is made of wood, while the bottom one of celluloid (an early plastic). Get all the details about collecting button hooks here.

Vintage & Antique Porcelain Buttons

Porcelain buttton with floral and gold decorationIsn’t this button a beauty? Porcelain and other ceramic buttons began to be manufactured from about 1830 and onward. They were widely produced, especially in France, where they were hand-painted or decorated with transfer prints (like Staffordshire china). Like other natural materials, porcelain is cool to the touch.

The lovely button above a would have been hand-painted by a woman, either in a large room filled with other ladies or possibly in her home. The paint would typically have been applied over the glaze and then fired for permanency.

The 22 karat gold painted on the edges is rather delicate; therefore, you should clean it gently. I’ve sold several hand-painted porcelain buttons in the $5-10 range, depending upon size, beauty, and condition. Large, ornate ones could sell in the $100s.



Bakelite Buttons

vintage bakelite buttons

Invented in 1907 in New York state, Bakelite is one of the earliest forms of plastic, and it is highly collectible. In fact, collectors go crazy for it in all its forms: buttons, jewelry, toys, flatware, radios, napkin ring holders, and more. However, it can be very tricky to properly identify this unique and rare material. To the untrained eye, it can look like any old plastic.

vintage red bakelite buttonsJamie Brock, in her Vintage Button Guide, provides a couple of different testing methods. I’m going to be honest with you and tell you that I’ve never done too well with any of these tests. Over the years, I’ve learned what Bakelite looks like, what it feels like, and how much it weighs (heavier than plastic). And most of the time, I’ve been right.

vintage bakelite buttons
It also has a clunky sound when two pieces are knocked together. This sound, along with the look and feel, are reasons why billiard, dice, and chess makers still use Bakelite in their manufacturing processes. Bakelite buttons can soar in price up to the $100s.

Plastic Buttons

colorful plastic buttonsThe plastic buttons that we know today began to be produced in large numbers between the World Wars, in the 1930’s, in every color under the sun.

framed card of vintage plastic buttonsPlastic has proven to be the most economical “raw” material for button manufacture, and they now make up the vast majority of buttons being produced today, whether for clothing or crafts. I often frame attractive cards of buttons using corner holders, like you see in this photo (SOLD).

vintage plastic buttonsI think these vintage “King’s Regiment” buttons in bright blue have a nice, nautical feeling about them. In fact, King’s Regiment 71 has a long history as a British regiment that has served all over the world. There’s a school in North Carolina named after this Scottish regiment, and I’m guess that’s where these buttons came from–old school uniforms. They are in my shop priced at just $2.99. (SOLD)

vintage card of little darling buttonsAnother card of plastic buttons, aptly named “darling.”

vintage card of vintage men's buttons
Truth be told, sometimes I’m more attracted to the cards than I am the buttons! I’m always on the lookout for both loose buttons and old cards.

Tins of Vintage ButtonsOne day, not too long ago, I hit a garage sale with not just one, but four tins of buttons for a dollar each.

Tins of Vintage ButtonsYep, you heard me right šŸ™‚ Many of the buttons in my collecting posts came from these tins. Oh what fun I had sorting through them all!

Vintage button cardsAnd on a different occassion, I came across a collection of button cards that had to come home with me. Aren’t they lovely?

Button Facts
Did you know that the Amish refuse to wear buttons considering them a source of pride?
Cute as a button, comes for the saying, “Cute as a Button Quail.”
This small bird is in fact very cute. Over time, the last word was dropped.
Button, button, who’s got the button? was a popular 19th century children’s game.
The button nose is the most popular nose among those getting “nose jobs.”
Interested in Part I of this Button series?

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A Cool Collectible (Part II) Vintage Buttons adirondackgirlatheart.com


The Simple, Humble, Surpisingly Sexy Button
Vintage Button Guide: Ways to Identify Antique Buttons


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  1. What an interesting post and blog. This is my first visit, and I'll be signing up to follow you. It is so interesting to find out so much about buttons! I had no idea there even were porcelain ones, and I will be on the hunt while antiquing (they're beautiful!). Have you ever described how people display their collections? I've never thought of collecting them, but you have definitely piqued my interest. Thank you for an interesting start to the day. Rosie @ The Magic Hutch

  2. Really interesting and neat stuff, Diana! There's just something about buttons, don't you think? I've always been drawn to using them in scrapbooking, card making and sewing projects – so fun! Love your collection and I enjoyed learning some new "button" facts! Have a blessed day!

  3. This is a very interesting post Diana. I'm trying to learn about buttons and collecting. This was very helpful. Thanks for sharing your knowledge.

  4. So very interesting friend! I just loved this post as my grandmother was a button collector and I still keep her buttons near to my workspace as a source of inspiration! I enjoyed learning the history of so many of the buttons that my grandma collected! Wishing you an outstanding week! Nicole xo

    1. I to have many tins full of my grandma’s and greatgranny’s buttons. Love them all. One that I’m not sure of is a little gold purse with a bow on it. So pretty I have several of them. I wonder all time what they were on. Thank you for all your info. Mary Graham

      1. What wonderful heirlooms Mary! One way to research buttons is to search on eBay and/or Etsy. Another is to reach out to a button collecting group. In addition, there are button guides available for purchase, like this one. (I’d receive a commission if you made a purchase :))

  5. I have jars and jars of buttons! And now you've made me want to go through them and see what I have. Great and interesting post. Thank-you so much!

  6. Great collection! One of my favorite things to see at The Country Living Fair is the lady with the vintage buttons! I appreciate you sharing with Home and Garden Thursday,

  7. I have been given so many buttons ,will be fun to go through them,some are very old,thanks for the information,great

  8. I have to say I stumbled into this by accident but I enjoyed the helpful descriptions in Part I & in Part 2. Identifying the material has been the toughest part for me. I know I have bone, vegetable ivory, glass, Bakelite, etc. but for some reason Iā€™m so hesitant to label them. I inherited most of them & have purchased a few. I love buttons!

  9. Trying to identify a small metal button , four holes and the name B.Macken on it. Looks like a shirt button. Any suggestions. Thank you.

  10. I was just given my mom’s button tin, it is a collection of her buttons and my grandmother’s. My grandmother used to make Roy Roger’s and Dale’s costume among other stars in the 40’s and 50′ into the 60’s.

    She had a furrier shop in Beverly Hills. Anyway, my mom passed in 1996 and I never new what happened to the buttons. I’m the seamstress in the family it’s in my DNA, Grandma 1 taught me how to hand sew and use a pedal sewer, Grandma 2 bought my first machine at age 9, I’m 67.

    SO, my niece had the tin and new I’d want them…anyway, so far I have covered a wall clock with antique buttons that hangs by my front door so I think of my mom and Grandma’s everyday. I’m starting to collect buttons and do crafts with them. I’m trying to make something for all my niece’s from Mom’s buttons as a keepsake.

    1. What a fascinating story your tin of buttons has to tell Terri, and what a creative idea to use them for your clock project. Your niece’s are truly blessed to have you for their aunt. Whatever you come up with for them will be just wonderful I’m suare šŸ™‚

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