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How Buttons Are Made --The Story of Buttons - Part 1
This morning when I was looking for something in the closet I came across an old mason jar, filled with buttons. I wasn't looking for buttons, but they stopped me in my tracks, when it occurred to me that few people know the story of buttons. It goes deeper than that fairly complex story for me, for the nostalgia of the old button jar most likely is tied to why I sew and the woman who had a great influence upon me, my Grama Daisy. She's the one who taught me so much, and the one I learned the story of buttons from.
The History Of Button Making Of Yesterday
Button-like discs or knobs were used as ornaments as long ago as the Bronze Age. Such ornaments served to decorate belts and other leather objects. For thousands of years, however, it did not occur to people that they might use buttons to fasten their clothes. Primitive man used thorns and sinews for that purpose. Later, more civilized peoples, like the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, simply fastened their clothes with tie strings, pins, brooches, and buckles.
One fine day the discovery was made that the ornamental button might be made to serve as a very effective fastener. One could either push the button through a slit in a garment or slip a loop over it. Some say that the button was first used in this way in antiquity, though this is rather doubtful.
It is hard to tell whether some of the buttons shown in pictures and sculpture of the Middle Ages were really fasteners or were merely ornamental. At any rate, it is fairly certain that by the thirteenth century A.D. buttons were used as fasteners. By the sixteenth century, buttons had been widely accepted as part of one's everyday attire. They were sometimes used lavishly too, in decoration. It is said, for example, that there were thirteen thousand and six hundred gold buttons on a single costume of the French King Francis I, who lived from 1494 to 1547.
The Early Button Making Industry
Two centuries later button-making had become a flourishing industry, particularly in France, Germany, and England. Buttons were made of metal, jewels, cut stone, mother-of-pearl, leather, wood, cut steel, porcelain, glass, and other materials besides.
They were much more expensive than they are now. Shaping and decorating were done by skilled artisans, working on only one button at a time. Buttons were not discarded with one's old clothes. They were removed from the old garment and sewed to the new, and this process was repeated again and again.
Early Button Making In The United States
The first buttons made in the United States were of metal. In 1750, Caspar Wistar, a German immigrant, began to manufacture brass buttons in Philadelphia. This conscientious man guaranteed his buttons for seven years! Within a few years, several firms in New England were producing buttons. The output was still so small at the outbreak of the American Revolution (1775) that the metal buttons used on the uniforms of American soldiers had to be imported from France.
During the War of 1812, button imports were cut off as a result of the British blockade. Aaron Benedict, a button maker of Waterbury, Connecticut, made the most of the golden opportunity offered by the war. He bought up every brass pot and pan on which he could lay his hands on and rolled the metal for buttons in his own rolling mill.
When he could no longer get brass, he made his buttons out of pewter. After the war, the metal-button industry made rapid progress. Buttons covered with cloth were introduced, and then horn buttons, made from the horns and hooves of cattle.
The Vegetable Ivory Button
One curious early innovation in button manufacturing, came from Austria in 1859. Buttons began to be made from the corozo or tagua nut, the fruit of a palm tree. How someone in Austria in the mid 1800s came to know the Corozo Palm tree from South America seems like a mystery.
The nut has endless possibilities in terms of being easily carved and died. Chances are if you have an old button collection, you have some of these vegetable ivory buttons. It turned out to be softer than carving on bone and easily dyed, as the dye only seems to be absorbed by the top layer of the nut, allowing artists to engrave buttons with some fascinating ivory colored contrast.
The early vegetable-ivory nuts from which buttons were made were imported principally from Ecuador, Colombia, and Panama. The nuts were first dried under intense heat. This causes the nut to shrink from the shell. Rolling in a metal drum then made the shell break off.
The nuts were cut by means of circular saws into slabs which were dried in kilns until all moisture was removed. Blanks were cut from the slabs, turned on lathes and then drilled. The buttons were then given a solid color by being dyed in vats.
To produce a mottled effect (one in which several colors blended into each other), different shades of color were sprayed upon the buttons through stencils. The final coloring was by vat dipping. Sometimes the buttons were embossed.
Vegetable ivory buttons are still used today on men's fine suits, army shirts, and women's tailored clothing. They came back into popularity in the 1990s.
Metal buttons are of three kinds. There are uniform buttons for soldiers, sailors, policemen and the like, and of course on jeans and other clothing today.
Uniform buttons used to be only made of brass. They were made in two parts -- the front, containing the design, and the back, containing the shank. Blanks for the front part are heated, cleaned, and then stamped with the design. Sometimes the process is repeated several times to make the design stand out more clearly.
Finally, gold plate is applied and the button is polished. The shank is attacked to the back part of the button by soldering. The back is then plated with gilt and the front and back of the button are put together by means of a die.
Other brass buttons made in a similar way, are sometimes used for ornaments on women's garments. Frequently fancy buttons are made of white metal (White metal has a tin base and is alloyed with copper and antimony). These buttons are manufactured by means of rubber molds. After being molded, the buttons are plated with copper, gold or silver, as desired.
There were of course, many other types of early buttons, among them:
- Pearl (Mother-of-pearl) - (See The Story of Buttons - Part 2)
- Covered Buttons - Generally made by covering metal parts with he same materials as from which the garment itself was made, or by contrasting fabric.
- Horn Buttons - Were chiefly made from cows' hooves, ground to a powder and mixed with color ingredients and a small quantity of water. No glue or other binding agency was added, as the hoof contains a natural glue. The mixture was poured into dies containing about one hundred cavities. The dies were heated and then chilled. The buttons were then removed from the dies, filed, drilled, and polished.
- Bone Buttons - Were made from the shinbones of cattle, and were generally used on undergarments or the inside flaps of garments, where the buttons were not visible. The first manufacturing step is to soften the bones by soaking them overnight. Then were then cut into slabs by a circular saw. Then they were further refined either by machine or by hand.
Old Fashioned Button Trivia
It used to be that the unit of measurement for buttons was the line. There were forty lines to the inch. Thus, when people spoke of a thirty line button, they meant a button which was 3/4 of an inch in diameter.