Beautiful, Bountiful Buttons

Gentle Readers, your Humble Proprietress is recovering from surgery and so shall share photographic images of antique and vintage buttons in lieu of a lengthy article.

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Metal and glass buttons from the Victorian and Edwardian eras.

Of buttons, Collector’s Weekly writes, “As long as human beings have needed to keep their clothing fastened, buttons have been there to do the work.” Buttons may be utilitarian, however, even well into the era of mass production, they were made to be reused on the garments of succeeding generations, resulting in little works of art that please collectors’s eyes today.

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A small Victorian carved Mother of Pearl button featuring a steel-cut lizard, probably dating to the mid-1800s.

Many still recall our grandmothers’ button jars or boxes filled with delightful miniature wonders of carved shell, shiny metal augmented with brilliant cut-steel embellishments, luminous glass, light and fancifully shaped celluloid, and bakelite of eye-watering colors. I was born in 1963, my father in 1928, and my father’s mother in 1891. Some of my earliest memories are of Nanny, as I called her, sewing on a black Singer treadle machine richly decorated with Victorian gothic revival red and gold designs. As Nanny pumped the ornate foot panel in a soothing rhythm, I played in a pool of buttons scooped from the sewing machine’s cabinet drawers. I remember, especially, bakelite raspberries, as tart red as the real fruits, and a large navy blue button shaped like a bundle of roses. I have recently obtained a white version, seen below.

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An unusual celluloid button, probably from the mid-1930s.

I’m especially fond of celluloid, a composition plastic made of cellulose dinitrate blended with pigments, fillers, camphor, and alcohol, that was invented in the mid-1800s and meant to mimic ivory. In some colors, it produces a soft, comforting glow when illuminated, rather like a glass of apple juice or beer.

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These luminous celluloid buttons tentatively date to the 1910s.
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Celluloid wafer buttons with complex Art Deco designs, circa late 1920s.
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Air-puffed and other celluloid buttons from the 1920s and 1930s.

And then there are the metal picture buttons. Oh my.

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A tiny steam train passes under a castle-bearing bridge. Tinned brass, mid-1800s.
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A trippy owl in a starry sky. Tinned brass and with cut-steel embellishments, late 1800s.
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An Italian villa, probably mid-1800s.

I’ll close with a few more interesting examples.

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A domed brass chatelaine button, 1890s.
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Carved shell and Mother of Pearl buttons, all 19th century.
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A Victorian perfume button. Ladies applied their favorite scents to these cloth-backed buttons, rather than chance marring their clothing with perfume stains.

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All buttons from my modest collection.

Author: Ann Longmore-Etheridge

Writer, journalist, editor, historian.

2 thoughts on “Beautiful, Bountiful Buttons”

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