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History of Buttons

Buttons are as old as clothing. In the Prehistory old culters over the complete world buttons have been made of stone, pottery, gade-stone, jet, bone, wood, shell, flint, horn of deer or stag, ivory, bronze, argent and gold. They were used for purely practical reasons or as decoration, because even an ordinary button from bone was a decoration of the garment.
Buttons of Kings were more luxuously, such as buttons of gold and glass, wich were found in the tombs of Mykene and sea cultures around the Meditarranean. There are buttons from the 16th century v.C. Women saw rapidly the importance of this practical object and the possibility to make a little gem. Etrucan, Roman or Gaul, female vanity....


Button History- The Middel Ages

From the fifth century round fences are known, flat or decorated with geometrical figures. Jewels in gold, argent, mother of pearl and mount crystal. Sometimes decorated with colourful stones. This great pomp and circumstance declined when the first millenium approached: the year 1000 was promised to be the fatel date and the end of humanety. But if nothing spectacular happens, the court and lords promptly forget all doom and penitentials of the uncertain times which has been predicted.
The standerd of living restored and the consequence was rich decorated clothing. Gold - and silversmiths manufactured buckles and hooks, pins and brooches in gold and argent. The locksmiths offered fastenings, large or small but in iron, tin and brass.

History of Buttons -The Crusades

During the crusades (11th-13th century), the art of making buttons was importend here from the Near East.
When it became usage to wear clothes narrower around the body, the role of buttons became more important.
In the thirteenth century it was in to wear closely connecting sleeves from pulse to elbow, both for women and for men. There are drawings known which show a row of small buttons, placed near each other, used as decoration of the sleeve and body. There were also practical reasons to use buttons, because otherwise people had to sew together the sleeves each morning and to release them each evening. There were women who did this because they found buttons too lawless. False modesty, because it was a time when slits in lateral slits in vests, upper dresses and farmer skirts, which show a glimpse of the skin, were popular. According to the church, the gates of hell were opened and buttons were cesured for both sexes. Only laces couls prevent impropriety of clothing.

History of Buttons- Begining fourteenth century

Beginning the forteenth century, there are women who accentuate their waist. The button manufacturers do good business; up to 38 buttons in front, 20 on each sleeve, one a fold, around the neckline, as a jewel.

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Several artisans made buttons: jewelers, enamel workers, coppersmiths, toy makers, woodworkers. Also rosary makers made cheap buttons from simple materials such as bone and horn.
In the thirteenth century bij Saint Louis decided:
-horn, bone and ivory were reserved for rosery makers,
- button manufactorers received the right to copper, brass and simple materials such as bone and horne,
- goldsmiths got precious metals and glass.
But this arrangement brought little lightening.
Simple buttons from wood or iron were coverd with a layer of fabric which was braided graceful, a technique that is called passementerie. Damasquinage also, the act of fitting gold or silver wires in iron or steel becomes known. Rhinestone and marble mosaic was appreciated, but gold is number one for buttons and jewellery. The goldsmith is king.

History of Buttons -The Renaissance

During the Renaissance and the beginning of the sixteenth century, buttons with stones decorated hats, shirts, sleeves and jackets of wealthy gentlemen and ladies. They were small buttons with silver or golden background, artistic edited, often filled with enamel and pearls, diamonds, rubies, granaatstone, esmaralds or rock crystal.
The lower class wore buttons of bone, wood, tin, copper, bronze, leather, dust and possible glass.

During the fifteenth century, our regions knew a first form of industrial development like for instance 'printing'. The emergence of markets that were organized on the occasion of religious festivities made the buttonmakers sell their wares on a larger scale could.

History of Buttons-Sixteenth Century

In the sixteenth century, the technique of enamel a revival. This technique is already knew bij the acient Greeks in the fourteenth century BC, and is pulverized email ( stekla, clear or colored) to melt on a flat surface. We can make this a drawing with thin wire(cloisonné) or by affixing metal oxides color, it was more paint on enamel.

In the seventeenth century, the buttons on jackets and gentleman coats usually small, numerous an egually decorative and funtional, but only for man. They were used for cloting together to make in the way that we now know. Women locked their garments with laces, ribbons in parentheses.

History of Buttons- The Seventeenth Century

Until the seventeenth century buttons were real gems. The Scottish Quee Mary Stuart (1562-1568) had a lot of juwel buttons. When she was beheaded in London in 1687, she wore buttons in jet an pearl, designed as small acorns.

For the collectors, thes buttons oldest rarely be found. What still be found, The Dutch silver buttons from the seventeenth century. This has been comfirmed bij a agrafe ( a swab trough the eye), as they could for different clothings.

History of Buttons- Last quarter of the 18th century

From the last quarter of the eighteenth century, large buttons were in fashion. The rage of luxery buttons lasted until about 1815. The following 35 year got the button a more functional and modest role although the quality and unsurpassed craftmanship. Wearing buttons was only for men.
It changed around 1850.
As the ninteenth century progressed and during the industrial revolution new materials were invented and mass production was unfolding, the quality deteriorated greatly.

History of Buttons- Japenese influence

In 1854, the Japanese ports opened to trade, and we know that in the years to follow a wave of japanese influences:
- Satsumas: porcelain with charactiristic crackle glaze stippeld with gold
- Japanese laquer or Chinalaque, a natural resin, had a big success
- Imports of vermilion red.
- Silver, enamel inlaid with mother- of- pearl in an Oriental motifs
This effect lasts until 1960.

History of Buttons- Queen Victoria

After Louis XIV, the Sun King, no one had a greater impact on the button industry as Queen Victoria of England. After the death of Prince Albert in 1861, she only wore jewelry and buttons in jet, as a sign of mourning. And this for 25 years. Those buttons and jewelry were widely copied in black glass, which is a lot cheaper for the common people. The glass was melted in steel moulds and pressed in many different motives. One can find the same models in metal and stained glass.

History of buttons- Picture buttons

It is also the period of the buttons with pictures of opera's, fables, plays, children(Kate Greenaway) birds, flowers....And all this in different sizes.

At the end of the nineteenth century had silverware a rise in England. Large silver buttons with a large semi-were worn a cape or cloak to be closed. This 'gay ninetees'are very sought.

History of Buttons -Artnouveau/Art Deco

Also for the buttons from the Art Nouveau (1890 -1920) is widely used silver, in addition, horn, toitoise, enamel and glass. In contrat to the art deco (1910 - 1940) which include glass, plastic and shiny metal were used.

1918 is the limit collectors used to talk about old or modern buttons.


Button History- Modern Buttons

Of the modern buttons, we can mention that in 1920 the china buttons on the market came in the form in which we still know at this moment.

Some momentary styles:-1940: transparent glass,
-1920-1930: imitation of wood (Burwood an Syroco)
-1940-1950: Bakelite in colors
-1950: half ......glass
-After the second world war: coloured glass,
-In the sixties: metal combined with plastics

History of Buttons- Haute Couture

In the Haute Couture there are some button designers working for the Couturiers. They designed buttons en buckles.
Some name's of designers are:
Jean Clément, Jean Schlumberger, François Hugo, Lucien Weingott, Line Vautrin, Hélène Méchin , Monique Ogier and André Molco etc.


Written by: Griet van Ranst- Text based on information found in:
The big book of buttons: E.Hudges and M. Lester
Boutons: T. Gandouet
Buttons: N.Fink, M.Ditzler
Boutons: L.Allio

Word of Thanks to Griet

My great thanks go to Griet van Ranst. She alowed me to use her text about the History of Buttons to my antique buttons website.