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Button Collecting

Updated on May 6, 2010

Button collecting has become an enormously popular collecting hobby in the United States. Fifty thousand collectors are served by dealers and museums. They have a nonprofit association, the National Button Society, organized in 1938 to classify the types of buttons and now devoted to promoting the hobby.

The first formal collectors of buttons were girls who in the latter half of the 19th century assembled charm strings. A U.S. army captain, Luis Emilio, started assembling military buttons in 1887 and accumulated a comprehensive collection now at the Essex Institute, Salem, Mass.

Buttons may be classified according to the type of material used, the kind of story depicted on them (such as Bible stories, mythology, children's stories, fables), or by categories such as military and political.

Photo by Alaina Cherup
Photo by Alaina Cherup

History of Buttons

Buttonlike discs and knobs were used as ornaments long before they were used as effective fasteners. As long ago at 2500 B.C., Egyptians wore button badges suspended about the neck. Later, Greeks and Romans used ties, pins, and buckles as fasteners, and they used buttons as badges or decoration. The oldest known button ever found was a round disc with holes, which dated back to the early Iron Age; it was found about 1865 in a Danish peat bog.

In Europe buttons were commonly used as ornaments in the llth century. By the 13th century they were discovered to have practical use in two shapes—a small ball button and a flat, round one. By the 16th century, buttons were widely accepted, and royalty wore the most handsome varieties. King Francis I of France used 13,600 golden buttons on one court costume. The lavish use of gems for buttons encouraged the development of many imitations, and the common people were then able to wear buttons. By the 18th century, the demand for buttons was so great that the button industry became well established in Europe. Originally most buttons were handmade or homemade by skilled artisans, but machines began to take over button-making during the Industrial Revolution.

Although brass buttons had been produced in Philadelphia as early as 1750, the American button industry made no substantial progress until the War of 1812, when it grew after imports from Europe were cut off. A small factory in Waterbury, Conn., then made buttons for the Army and Navy. At the same time, button discs and molds covered with fabric were made in Easthampton, Mass. In 1864 the first factory for manufacturing vegetable ivory buttons was set up in Leeds, Mass. Around 1880 a German immigrant in Muscatine, Iowa, succeeded in making pearl buttons from shells of freshwater mussels. During World War II, chemically impregnated buttons designed to glow during blackouts were introduced as suitable for daytime and blackout wear. After World War II the American button industry captured the market once supplied by Europe and was able to export buttons in quantities. The business tide turned in the late 1950's, however, as U.S. button imports rose and exceeded U.S. button exports. Buttons bearing pictures or slogans have been popular in the United States in the 20th century, particularly in political campaigns. In the 1960's there was a boom in "cause" buttons advocating social action and in novelty buttons bearing absurd legends.

Materials and Manufacturing

Buttons are produced in two classes: (1) those made with a shank that may consist of a loop of metal or other hard substance or a tuft of fabric, and (2) those pierced with holes for threading.
 
Buttons have been made of a range of materials as costly as gold, silver, and jewels and as economical as wood and paper. Other button materials include ivory, bone, horn, hoof, hair, leather, nuts, seeds, feathers, insects, mother-of-pearl, tortoise shell, glass, porcelain, celluloid, casein, plastic, steel, copper, tin, aluminum, nickel, brass, bronze, pewter, rubber, crochet, braid, and fabrics. Ocean pearl buttons are made from oyster shells.

Buttons made of plastic encompass every color, size, and shape. They imitate shell, ivory, amber, and other expensive materials. Plastic buttons may be cast in sheet form and later shaped mechanically, or they may be molded to final form under heat and pressure. Both processes are highly automated, and they yield products that are uniform in quality and low in cost. Synthetic resins for plastic buttons include polyester, urea, melamine-urea, phenolic, and acrylic. Since 1959, imitation pearl buttons made of polyester have outsold natural pearl by about 30%.

Metal buttons used on high-fashion apparel are desirable also for uniforms and heavy-duty work apparel. Wood, bone, vegetable ivory, leather, and glass continue to be used in limited quantities. In a typical year about 60% to 70% of U.S. button production is plastic, 8% to 10% metal, 5% to 8% pearl, and 10% to 12% other.

Button-producing centers of the United States are situated in Maine, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Iowa. The United States exports buttons primarily to Canada, Britain, France, Switzerland, Sweden, West Germany, the Netherlands, and Australia.

Italy, France, and Japan lead in sales of buttons to the United States. Other principal button producers are the Netherlands, Britain, West Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Hong Kong.

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