Buttons! Historical Little Works of Art
by Sylvia Liszka Durell, Florida State Button Society Publicity Chair
Co-founder of the Hernando County Button Collectors Group
Thousands of men, women, teens and children admit to have been bitten by the button bug. It isn’t just the beauty of buttons that captivates collectors, it’s their histories, too. Button collecting got its start during the Great Depression predominantly because it was a hobby that just about anybody could afford during those lean times. Button collections could be started with buttons found in household button jars and tins.
A common question for the hobby newcomer is “how old are buttons?” It is possible cavemen and women could have carved the first buttons from stone, bone or shell. Some historians say the earliest known button was made about 5,000 years ago of a curved shell. The funny thing is, though—while they looked like buttons, they didn't fasten anything! They were simply worn as decoration. And it wasn’t until about 900 AD that a brilliant man or woman invented the buttonhole by figuring out that by making a small slit in a piece of cloth on the side opposite of where the button is—just big enough to let the button pass through—the cloth can be fastened snugly across the body.
The French were quick to spot the potential of the button and by 1250 AD had established the Paris Button Makers Guild. The magnificent buttons the guild members made were generally only worn by the wealthy. Wearing lots of buttons made a statement: “I have money!” It is said that a gentleman’s debt could be paid by simply plucking a precious button from his suit. Commoners couldn’t afford these buttons and even if they could, the aristocracy passed laws that limited the type of buttons used by underclasses to bone, cloth, leather and wood. Buttons told society where you ranked on the social ladder.
Royalty adorned their garments with as many buttons as possible to show their superiority over another ruler. The 14th century King Francis I of France outshone everyone by wearing 13,600 golden buttons made for a special outfit for his meeting with an English king. To his surprise the English king was equally heavy with buttons!
Use of buttons as decorations reached more sensible levels in the 16th Century. That's not to say they weren't still very much in vogue; it's just that the number of buttons required to be at the height of fashion diminished. In response to this, the button-makers took to making more and more elaborate buttons. This reached a point that some religious groups banned the use of buttons altogether. They would use only hooks and eyes to fasten their clothing.
Buttons of brass, ivory, papier mâché, pewter, silver and wood, were first made in America in New England in 1707. From 1790 to 1836, the U.S. Patent Office granted 11,348 button patents. The patents protected nearly every aspect of button-making, from how glass or mother-of-pearl buttons were manufactured, to better ways to design button display cards.
The Industrial Revolution brought mass-production of buttons and new materials for buttons were being discovered. But the most popular button of the 19th Century was the black glass button. They were made for the masses in response to Queen Victoria's usage of black jet mourning buttons following the death of Prince Albert.
The discovery of abundant fresh-water mussels and clams in Midwestern rivers created the “pearl” button industry in the United States. Button factories lined the Mississippi from Minnesota to Missouri. By 1931, the mussel beds were literally wiped out and the industry was gone. The demise of the shell button industry is likely to have happened anyhow owing to the strong competition of plastic button manufacturing, which was already beginning.
With such a long history of being part of the human story, I hope you can now begin to see why these little works of art with abundant history are passionately collected! The National Button Society has more than 3,000 members on four continents. Thirty-nine states have state and local button clubs.
The 2017 Florida State Button Society Meeting and Show has come and gone!
The "Joy of Buttons" was definitely experienced at the show. More than 200 people attended the show at the Shores Resort in Daytona Beach.
View my video report on all the goings-on (below) and also these reports from The Daytona Beach News-Journal to get a feel for the fun!
SHOP for Button Bracelets!
White Buttons on Red Zipper Bracelet
The bright red zipper used as a base for this bracelet is the perfect background for the super white plastic buttons! Comfortably fits 6-3/4" wrist. Elastic closure provides some stretch. Unique handmade piece of button jewelry.
Shipping included in price.
Shipping included in price.
Lovely Metal Silvertone Buttons on Burgundy Zipper
Intricately designed metal buttons are shown off beautifully by this burgundy-colored, silver-teeth zipper. Measures approx. 7-3/4" around. One-of-a-kind. Price includes shipping.
Obvious Button Bracelet
These primary colored buttons are sewn onto a soft fabric swatch. Closure is button and loop. This bracelet can't be missed and makes a clear statement that you love buttons! Very lightweight and fits 6-3/4" wrist well. Price includes shipping.