A Guide to Vintage & Antique Buttons (Part 1)

[Updated: April 6, 2019]

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. You can find vintage buttons part II here and learn how to display vintage buttons here.

A Vintage & Antique Button Guide

 

Button History

Historians surmise 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, 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.

Collecting Vintage & Antique Buttons

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.

Collecting Antique Bone Buttons

vintage bone buttonsThe 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.

Collecting Mother-of-Pearl Buttons

vintage shell buttonsThe pearly insides of oyster shell provide the source of Mother-of-Pearl (MOP) buttons, primarily from the South Pacific.

vintage shell buttonsEventually, 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.

front and back of vintage shell buttonOn the backs of  some MOP buttons the outer portion of the shell can be seen.

vintage shell buttonsBecause 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.

File:ButtonShell.jpg

vintage cards of shell buttons

Collecting Jet Buttons

antique jet buttonsJet 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.

antique floral jet buttonsWhile 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.

large antique jet buttonsCalled 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.

back of jet buttonsAnother 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, check out the Whitby Museum FAQ page.

Collecting Glass Buttons

Early manufacture of glass buttons in the 18th century involved slicing glass rods, and then grinding and polishing each button.

french-blue-and-black-glass buttons
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.]

early shank on antique glass buttonsAround 1830, buttons began to be produced in molds, with a metal shank inserted into the molten glass, as you see here.

vintage glass buttonsMolten glass would be poured into molds of various shapes and allowed to cool before being popped out.

The Czech produced clear glass buttons as well as colored versions in magnificent colors, like ruby and cobalt, as well as pinks and lavenders and yellows.

antique milk glass buttonsWe 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.

vintage glass buttons on a card

Collecting Wooden Buttons

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.

vintage wooden buttonsBut I did recently purchase this set of wooden Mod buttons that would certainly make any article of clothing they adorned a statement piece.

vintage wooden toggle buttonsAnd who doesn’t recognize these Paddington Bear-style toggle buttons?

vintage triangle wooden buttonsAnother 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. Before you leave, you might enjoy this short TED Talk about buttons:

 

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Collecting Vintage Buttons Part I

My sources for this button post:
Vintage Button Guide: Ways to Identify Antique Buttons
The Story of Buttons
abuttonlady.com/workshop
Button Country 
Connecticut State Button Society 
The DAACS Cataloging Manual: Buttons.
The Peacock Box.

Find my Part II article here:
Collecting Buttons Part II

Find tips for cleaning buttons here:
Buttons In Time.

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21 Comments

  1. Great post and very informative. So glad to see that there are other button lovers out there. I don't have a huge collection, but I love what I have! Thank you and I look forward to your future posts.

    1. Thank you for your kind words, Bonnie. I'm so glad you stopped by: I look forward to chatting with you again 🙂

  2. I love buttons. When my Mom would sew I would love to play with her button box! I still enjoying looking at them and sorting them…so much fun. Great info in your post!
    hugs, Linda

    1. My great-grandmother did the same when I was very little. She would let us sew them onto her sweater and then later on, she'd snip them off. I'd forgotten this memory until you mentioned yours, Linda–thanks 🙂

    1. Ha! Yes, they're not as plentiful as they were, say ten years ago. Thanks for dropping in, Kate 🙂

  3. Well – I started one comment and it disappeared before I could click on post. I am another one that likes the old vintage/antique buttons. Especially the ones with rhinestones in them, they are getting harder to find.
    I bookmarked your site and will return when have more time to check out more posts.
    Thanks for stopping by.
    Hope you are enjoying the weekend.

  4. Thank you for all this great information and history, pinning to my Features board for the week! I love those glass buttons, so pretty. Thank you for sharing this at my History & Home link party – Dawn @ We Call It Junkin.com

    1. Thanks–I'll be publishing Part II next week, along with a post on how to decorate with buttons.

  5. I have a modest button collection and was expecting to see your calico buttons, some of my favorites. They aren't mentioned in this post or the Part ll post so perhaps you don't enjoy them like I do? I have mine framed in oblong embroidery hoops and hung in the bathroom. Great conversation starters! Vicki in Louisville KY

  6. I just found this article from you. Loved all the info. Will keep checking out your site to see Vol. 2. I am a big hoarder of old buttons. Love, love old buttons.

  7. Hello Adirondack Girl! My name is Ada and I buy sell and collect buttons. Did you know that there is a National Button Society? A Texas State Button Society and there is “The Big “D” Button Club ” in Dallas, Texas and there are many other button clubs all over Texas and the United States. Button collecting is a big hobby. Most collectors collect buttons by materials and colors.

    I have a large collection of Bethlehem Pearls which are prize winning beauties! I also have trays of prize winning green glass and a whole wall full of creative mountings. If you would like to have more information Yawl jest holler now ya hear? (That was my Texas accent in writing, LOL.) Later, Ada

  8. I just recently became a fan of button collecting. I totally nerd out on anything I am interested in. So, naturally I have been trying to learn everything I can about buttons. Most books are out of print or too pricey for me right now. Imagine my surprise when I stumbled upon your article. You have been able to provide me with more information today than I have been able to find on my own. Thank you so much for writing this.

  9. I received a gift of a gallon jar filled with buttons. They were so dirty !!! I’ve soaked them in 20 Mule team Borax. Most of them have come out cleaner. Is there another suggestion to clean them? What would you suggest to clean metal buttons?
    I was very happy to find your site.

  10. Hello,
    I have a container of old buttons that I would like to donate. They are mainly from my grandmother, born 1890 and my mother, born 1917. They cut them off their old clothes. Might you be interested in them?
    Thank you.
    Karen Brown

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