We do not know just when buttons were first used. We do know objects resembling buttons have been found back to BCE. By the 13th century, button makers were organized into guilds. Like fine jewelry, buttons became a symbol of status for its wearers. During this time, restrictions were made on the use of buttons according to wealth and rank. Only the nobility was able to commission the Goldsmiths to make buttons of gold, silver, and precious stones. The common folk had to be satisfied with lesser buttons made of bone, wood, and coarse fabric. By the 15th century, button guilds termed Lacemakers, Boutonnières, and Embellishers made all of the buttons regarded as utilitarian. Button manufacture was closely controlled through laws, which carried heavy fines for failure to comply. By the 18th Century, the art of button making had reached its peak. Buttons were hand made from materials as diverse as steel, sealing wax, lizard skin, precious metals, semi-precious stones and glass. These choice buttons of the 18th Century were primarily worn by gentlemen of the court, and the pictorial designs on them covered every conceivable subject from the classical to the baudy. Although they were conceived and worn as buttons, they were actually used more in the manner that jewelry would be today. It was in western European countries like England, France, Italy and Austria, where the finest hand crafted buttons emerged. This probably was due to the tradition of royalty in these countries, and their extreme love of ostentation. The French court at Versailles became the fashion center of all of Europe. Louis XIV, known as the Sun King, adorned himself with an outfit so weighty with precious jewels that he could scarcely move. One of his favorite coats was said to have 123 diamond buttons, with the buttonholes embellished with diamonds as well. By 1785, button making knew no limit to the diversity of subjects portrayed, materials used, and techniques employed. Unfortunately, few of these choicest examples of button making have survived to find their way into the hands of present day collectors. Many of them were salvaged for the precious materials, and subsequently remade into jewelry.
Other famous people from the past have also influenced button design. Queen Victoria of England popularized black glass buttons when she went into 40 years of mourning for her beloved Prince Albert. Victorians became interested in creepy, crawly critters, such as bats and insects and these became a popular button motif of the time. This was undoubtedly connected to the work of Darwin and his recent discoveries.
When an Egyptian mummy named Tutankhamen was discovered in 1927, the new rage in buttons became those with an Egyptian theme.
With the turn of the century and WWI, came the industrial revolution which definitely had an impact on the manufacture of buttons. Through the use of new machinery, skilled craftsmen were able to make a wide variety of buttons at an affordable cost. The best glass buttons emerged from countries such as Germany, and Czechoslovakia where they had access to the finest sand, a key ingredient for quality glassmaking.
As time went on, new button materials emerged. During the mid 19th century, celluloid, one of the earliest synthetic materials, was discovered and perfected for use in button manufacture. By the mid 20th century, plastic in its many forms replaced the use of celluloid for button making. Today, buttons are made of almost every imaginable material including plastics, shell, wood, horn, bone, fabric, metals, glass, ceramics, and enamel.
by Dorothy Krugner