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Collecting Vintage Buttons

I bought a Mason jar full of buttons from an estate sale over a decade ago. I don’t know why. Mason jars were not yet the “thing” they so clearly are today, and I had absolutely no use for the buttons themselves. I didn’t sew. Or craft. Or even wear a lot of clothing that utilized buttons. But I was drawn to them. The jar. The colors. The possibilities. So I bought them, and set them on a shelf where they sat quietly, bringing me joy with their mere existence. Occasionally I would add to it if I came across a small lot at a sale, but mostly the jar collected dust on a shelf next to an equally-dusty Christmas cactus, ignored but not unloved.

According to Jerry DeHay, a longtime collector and board member of the National Button Society, I am a “closet collector.”

This, he said, is how many button collections begin. Not with a bang, but a shrug. His wife, too, was a closet collector for years before finally coming out, buttons in tow, ready to learn more about these tiny treasures. And eventually, she pulled him into the fold as well.

"For me, it was the history,” he said. "That’s what got me interested." 

Because buttons do have a long and rich history. It’s a little surprising, but not really. Ever since the invention of pants, people have had to hold them up somehow. Pockets must be closed! Decolletage must be tastefully concealed! Wedding dresses must be ornately and tediously cinched up in the back! Work uniforms—from military regalia to the noble postal worker—must look sharp and be, well...uniform.

And in addition to the social history, there’s a personal history. Many of our grandmothers and great-grandmothers had their own collections, which they would use to make clothing for their family.

“If you think about it, buttons were one of the first things ever recycled,” DeHay said. “Clothes wore out, but the buttons could be reused.”

And while buttons have been made for centuries—the earliest known button is more than 5000 years old—it wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution that they became widely and readily available. Before that point, buttons were hand-crafted by smiths, jewelers, and craftsmen. They were as expensive to own then as they are hard to come by now. You may see them in a museum, DeHay said, but you’re unlikely to find them in the wild.

Before they were accessible and reusable, buttons were a status symbol. There was a time when buttons were flaunted on outfits like peacocks show their feathers—with pride and grandiosity.

Let’s take a walk down memory lane, and look at a few of the trends.

Industrial Revolution
The beginning point for most button collections, DeHay said, are those made in the 18th century. Buttons made during this time are distinguished by their construction, design, and subject matter. “You have some that were pretty exotic—things that were painted on ivory or glass set in metal. Those are highly prized, very rare, and you’re dealing with buttons that run $1000 or more.”  

But this period was also marked by more mass-produced buttons. “Colonial pearls—your mother-of-pearl buttons, your shell buttons—were very popular.” DeHay said.

This was well before the now-popular two- and four-hole button style, when most buttons featured a shank. Vintage colonial pearls, for example, often featured a pin shank that would run all the way through the the button, ending with a loop in the back for fastening.

Though these buttons were available to those who could afford them, those without means were often left to make their own, with molten pewter and a button mold.

Victorian Era
The Victorian Era saw a boom in the popularity of black glass buttons, beginning in England, following the death of Prince Albert, when Queen Victoria began a decades-long period of mourning, which included wearing all-black, including “mourning buttons.”

These buttons vary greatly in shape and design. Pictorials, floral designs, and cameos were all popular, and can be found with relative ease today, simply because they were made in such abundance.

This transitioned into a time of bright, beautiful buttons in a period called “the gay nineties.” These buttons are also relatively affordable for collectors, moreso than they were for the average citizen of the 1890s.

“You’re dealing with buttons here that will range from $10-$20,” DeHay said, “but they’re large and very flashy.” You can find these brightly-colored button—either self-shank or sew-through, in sizes reaching up to 6 inches.

The next popular trend which, like mourning buttons, originated in England, was gilding. Applying gold to buttons resulted in some beautiful methods of keeping one’s coat closed, but it wasn’t great for the health of the button-makers, DeHay said. The gilding process, he said, involved dissolving gold in mercury, applying it to the button, and then heating it until the mercury evaporated. “Well, that worked quite well, but they began to notice there was a high mortality rate among people who worked in those factories.”

The mercury use was phased out, replaced by other chemical processes.

The Modern Era

The Modern era, which begins in 1911, brought about buttons made from a wide variety of synthetic materials, from celluloid to vegetable ivory, as well as continued production of glass, pearl, and fabric-covered buttons. But as far as collectibility,  one of the most popular modern era material is Bakelite.

We’ve talked before about the best way to identify Bakelite jewelry. The same rules apply here.

Post-1911 buttons will be the easiest to find, and most likely the type you'll sort through when you come across a lifetime collection.

 

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But if you do get your hands on a basketfull of buttons of any age, don't cast the less exciting ones aside—there may be treasures in that trove. DeHay told a story of a woman coming to him with a small lot of buttons, to determine if she had anything of value. He found a Confederate infantry uniform button valued at $500. She was shocked.

"Well, if you'd have asked me to pick out the most worthless button, I probably would have picked that one," she said of the black, cast-iron button. "It's ugly."

Ugly or not, DeHay said, it's a historical artifact, and one that has value to collectors.

Uniform buttons, particularly confederate civil war buttons, are all valuable, DeHay said. "I saw one sell for $20k at a button auction."

But the "holy grail" button, he said, was the George Washington Inaugural button. “These were buttons that were made in limited quantity, and were worn by dignitaries," he said. "It’s an interesting experience when you hold that button in your hand, and think about where it's been."

 

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Ultimately, it's up to you what direction your collection is going to take. Maybe you want to have a highly-curated collection of Revolutionary War fasteners. Perhaps you came across a White Star Line button worn by a Titanic crewmember, and now you want to start your own "American Tragedies" collection. Or maybe you'd be happier buying every cat button you can get your hands on.

(And really, who could blame you). No matter where you want to take your collection, estate sales are a great place to start. But before you start dropping Benjamins on your own Washington Inaugural, it's important to get educated. "As with other things, there are reproductions," DeHay said. "You need to know what to look for." 

There are books available. DeHay suggests The Collector's Encyclopedia of Buttons by Sally C. Luscomb as a beginner's primer. But DeHay suggested visiting the National Button Society for insight on your budding button collection. They have state and local clubs across the country that are able to help. "So if people have buttons and are curious about them, there's probably a local club nearby," DeHay said. "They can just walk right in." 

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