Why do people collect buttons? Here is a quote from a button collector in 1943, appearing in a National Button Society Quarterly Bulletin:
“I cannot attempt to explain why people like to collect things! The fact remains that they do, and buttons seem to have a great many of the basic qualities which satisfy this urge. Like jewelry, glass and china, they appeal to the feminine heart; at the same time, they have some of the same characteristics which endear stamps and coins to the male collector. They are small, comparatively, and do not require too much room for display; they are bright and cheerful and attractive; they are diverse and amusing and full of interesting potentialities.”
From what we can determine archaeologically, the earliest use of buttons was around the 12th century. 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.
Now let’s talk about the hobby. The National Button Society was formed in 1938 for the purpose of organizing button collectors, in order that they might compare and study their buttons, and share their knowledge. Each button has a story to tell. A classification system was devised, much like the Dewey Decimal system for books, in order to fit each type of button into a useful framework. This classification is continually undergoing modification as new knowledge emerges. We classify our buttons according to age, size, type of material, and their pictorial design. Collectors use these attributes to make comparisons, and even compete at button shows held at both the national and state levels. NBS provides its membership with quarterly bulletins, featuring educational articles on different types of buttons. Today, the National Button Society enjoys a membership of about 3000 people, mostly from the United States. More than 70% of the states also have organized button societies, and there are many local clubs to join as well. People collect buttons for a variety of reasons. Besides the avid collector, others use them for crafts or jewelry making, or to embellish quilts and clothing. Some collectors may specialize in just one kind of button, such as bakelite, military uniform, or art deco glass. Because of the wide variety of buttons available, there is something to appeal to everyone.
By Dorothy Krugner