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Synthetic Buttons Throughout History

Updated on June 19, 2013

Although buttons come in many different sizes, shapes, and colors, they can all be classified as either natural or synthetic.

Synthetic buttons are buttons that are created using man-made materials instead of natural materials like bone, leather, seashells, or glass. Some of the materials used to make synthetic buttons include:

  • Lucite
  • Acrylic resin
  • Celluloid
  • Bakelite
  • Melamine formaldehyde
  • Phenolic resin
  • Urea-formaldehyde
  • Catalin
  • Galalith

Cost-conscious crafters consider the lower price of synthetic buttons to be a main advantage of using them in a project. Synthetic buttons are often significantly cheaper than their shell, horn, or bone counterparts. If a project uses a lot of buttons, such as a hand-sewn shirtdress, the cost difference may be enough to justify a switch to synthetics.

Color is another advantage of using synthetic buttons in a project. When buttons are created with natural materials, you are limited to colors found in nature. Buttons made from synthetic materials can be made in whatever shade you desire, however. This means you can have bright orange buttons to sew on a cloth handbag or deep violet-red buttons to use as accents on a young girl's sweater.

A History of Synthetic Buttons

For much of history, kings, queens, and other wealthy nobility used buttons as a status symbol. They had clothing with ornate gold and silver buttons made by specially trained craftspeople. In the 1500s, Francis I is said to have had 13,600 gold buttons on a single costume. In the 1700s, Louis XVI had courtiers who used buttons as decorative elements in a competition to see who could design the most attractive garments.

For common people, buttons were very expensive. When a garment could no longer be worn, it was common to cut off the buttons and reuse them for sewing new clothes. If you have a grandmother or older relative who sews, you've probably seen this practice firsthand.

The development of synthetic buttons was important because it made it possible for everyone to afford buttons for their hand-sewn clothing and made it more practical to start mass producing clothing in factories. Celluloid, a man-made plastic, was developed to replace ivory. Buttons made from celluloid look similar to ivory buttons, but are much more affordable. It should also be noted that celluloid buttons are better for the environment, since elephants are often killed to make items from ivory.

In the 1930s, bakelite (pronounced bay-kay-light, not bake-light) buttons became popular. Bakelite is a synthetic resin that was used to create buttons stamped with pretty patterns. Today, vintage bakelite buttons are valued as collectibles. You can identify bakelite buttons from ordinary plastic buttons by warming them in hot water and seeing if they give off a formadelyhede smell or by touching part of the button with a cotton swab dipped in Formula 409 cleaner and seeing if it turns yellow. Also, bakelite buttons will make a clunking sound when you hit two of them together.

In the 1960s through the 1980s, lucite was a popular syntectic button material. Designs such as Avon, Coro, and Trifari used lucite buttons on their garments. Many lucite buttons have a moonglow finish, where colors other than black will appear as stripes in the space between the base and the clear top layer. Lucite buttons with a moonglow finish often look like glass beads, which is why many vintage lucite buttons have ended up being recycled into unique handmade necklaces, bracelets, and earrings sold via craft fairs and websites such as Etsy.


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    • Jamie Brock profile image

      Jamie Brock 5 years ago from Texas

      It really is interesting learning about the different plastics buttons are made of and especially the ways to tell them apart. I never would have thought about some buttons smelling like formaldehyde when heated up but they sure do! Useful and interesting hub.. thank you for sharing :)

    • frogtalk profile image

      frogtalk 5 years ago

      I'll never look at a button the same.

    • peachpurple profile image

      peachy 5 years ago from Home Sweet Home

      i collect buttons from my old clothes and kids too. Kids clothes buttons are fancy and colorful. Sometimes, i used them to recycle them into gifts. Voted up