History of Buttons

2000 BCE- Buttons appeared on the scene; not as fasteners but as decorations.  Fasteners used at this time were pin type setups and belts.  The buttons were made from bone, horn, and wood or even sea shells.  For centuries these little baubles just "hung" around on clothing with nothing to do but look pretty.

1200 AD- The style of clothing and the delicate nature of fabric required a less harmful means of fastening and so the button hole is finally introduced.  The word "Button" first appears in the French language as bouton, for bud or bouten to push.

1250 AD- The Button Makers Guild is formed.  The guild produced magnificent buttons, only worn by the wealthy.  In fact, there were actually laws passed which forbade the common person from owning ANY button other than thread or cloth covered ones (not that they could afford the fancy ones anyway).

1300's thru 1400's-The well to do folk continued to go completely crazy for buttons.  In some cases, buttons covered most of the garment.  And each button had its own button hole!  Imagine how much work and time it could take to dress oneself!  It is then that a new profession arose; that of the professional dresser!

1500's-A French king in this century ordered 13,400 Gold buttons made for a special outfit for his meeting with an English king.  To his surprise the English king was equally heavy with buttons!  Also the Elizabethan era brought cloth covered buttons.

1600's-We actually find diamond buttons on a suit designed for the First Duke of Buckingham!  Wow!  In addition, this century saw magnificent silk, ceramic and silver buttons.  In the 17th century, French tailors began making thread buttons for military uniforms.  These were simple little balls of thread that worked perfectly and were economical.  The French button makers were outraged, convincing the government to actually pass laws forbidding these thread buttons to be used!  Homes were searched and even fines levied on tailors that made and used these buttons. 

1700's-This era brought fabulously embroidered buttons.  Wooden molds were carved and the embroidered material was stretched and crisscross stitched in the back to secure it. Towards the end of this century buttons got bigger and bigger.  In addition, steel buttons began their use for men's clothing.

1800's-1900's In the year 1802 Abel Porter established a company in the Northeastern United States that began making metal buttons.  He saw an opportunity for big business as the imported ones were scarce and expensive.  There were also challenges with the types of metals used but when Porter created them he used brass loops cast in the back of the button, and solved those previous problems. This company became the famous Scovill Manufacturing Co. whose name we still see on the backs of many old buttons today.

The most popular button of the 19th Century was the black glass button.  These were made for the masses in replication of Queen Victoria's fashioning of black jet buttons.  These were also referred to as mourning buttons, following the death of Prince Albert.

These Victorian Glass Buttons are a favorite of many Button Collectors today. Beautiful ocean mother of pearl buttons were also made in the 18th and 19th century.  They were dyed, engraved and embellished with metals and sometimes even jewels.  These buttons were made in Germany, France and Great Britain but the shells they were made from came from Japan, Austria, Central America and even Egypt. The most expensive shell is the white massacar from the East Indies. 

Modern Day Pearlies!
19th Century Pearly Kings and Queens 

A  “Pearly King” (feminine form Pearly Queen) is a person dressed in a traditional Cockney covered in Mother of Pearl buttons.  These costumes were treasured heirlooms, handmade and sometimes representing of a family's material worth.

Modern Day Button Making - By the turn of the 20th Century, picture and novelty buttons were very much the fashion.  Picturesque buttons for men's waistcoats were very popular.   Animals and hunting scenes were vastly produced for this purpose.  Many collectors adore them.  With the introduction of plastics, buttons weren't quite so precious. However, since the arrival of the sewing machine and patterns for the thrifty dressmaker, they provided the finishing touches while dressing on a budget.  Magnificent artisan glass buttons can be found at fine craft shops and craft shows today.  Torch work or lamp work is used to create unique and often, one of a kind, paperweight buttons.  My favorites to work with, as you can see by the jewelry I make, are carved Mother of Pearl Buttons.  I find the most colorful shells to be abalone with their magnificent striking colors.  Pearl buttons, both carved and etched, come from black Tahitian shells, cowries, helmet shells, pinna shells and conches.