Antique buttons: How to identify these exquisite collectible treasures (18th & 19th centuries)

Antique and vintage buttons

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As long as antique buttons like these have adorned clothing and shoes, people have been collecting them.

Made from a multitude of materials — everything from metal to bone, wood to plastic, porcelain to old ivory — buttons are pieces of everyday history that you can find pretty much anywhere, and can hold in your hand.

Here’s a look at dozens of unique antique buttons, along with some information on how to identify them: when they were made, where they come from, and what materials were used.

Antique buttons, buttons, everywhere (1955)

by Muriel R Hanson – Woman’s Day, August 1955

If you own a button box, you have the start of one of the most popular hobbies and — very likely — the makings of original accessories

Collectors of specialties lead active, purposeful lives. If they are truly interested in acquiring lovely or unusual examples of certain kinds of objects, they must be informed and tireless, roaming from attics to antique shops to auctions in search of undiscovered treasures.

Antique button collection from 1860 - Courtesy Smithsonian Museum (1)
Antique button collection from 1860 – courtesy Smithsonian Museum

No likely place may be passed up by those whose homes are utterly charming “museumettes” of Americana.

But, in one field, the collector can simply sit back, while the collection pours unbidden into her house, and that is the field of buttons. However, even here, the authoritative collector ranges alongside the pursuer of glass and china, both in knowledge and effort expended, for there are great rarities among buttons, too.

Most of us, however, are involuntary collectors, keepers of buttons inherited from our mothers, of those we clipped from worn-out dresses and blouses because they were so pretty and could be used again.

Antique decoupage silk buttons from 1775-1780
Antique decoupage silk buttons from 1775-1780

But not many of us are aware of the potentialities of the collection we possess. Partly this is due to the fact that we have not gone out to look for old and odd buttons, but chiefly it is because we limit in our minds the use of buttons. We see them solely as fasteners, decorative and utilitarian, for our family’s wardrobe.

But, thanks to the infinite variety of design and material in buttons, they can be used in many different ways — once we call on our imagination.

Antique buttons shown below (on blue background)

1. Seaport scene – French porcelain of about 1860. This is one of a set of four hand-painted buttons showing port scenes.

2. Theater Italien – French sepia print (eighteenth century) under glass. Each of the buttons in the set of sixteen showed a different scene.

3. Polished agate – This very highly polished stone, mounted on copper gilt, was made in France in the eighteenth century.

4. Bird on grass – a Dresden porcelain button of about 1760.

5. Woman with lyre – Characters from mythology were especially popular in the eighteenth century; this French button is painted on ivory under glass.

6. Fleur-de-lis – Also under glass and of the same era, this one is made of woven silk.

7. Woman in bicorn hat – made of French Limoges enamel in about 1850.

8. Hunter with dog and rabbit – a fine example of an eighteenth-century French enamel button with sterling mount.

9. Head of woman – French lithograph under celluloid, with steel-point border, of about 1860.

10. Strass button – About 1750, a German jeweler living in Paris invented a method of simulating gems. It was named after him, but more commonly called paste. This French “emerald” button is paste and sterling.

Collecting vintage and antique buttons (1955)

11. Cronus, father of Zeus – of eighteenth-century Wedgwood with a border of steel point.

12. Mythological figures – eighteenth-century Wedgwood, once more, with a peach-green background, rare today.

13. Child with bubble – hand-carved of mother-of-pearl in Palestine shortly before the second World War.

14. Coaching scene – English mother-of-pearl, from a coachman’s coat of about 1820. The original coat contained eight buttons, each of which portrayed a different scene.

15. Lohengrin’s farewell to Elsa – from a set of buttons showing scenes from operas, made of French brass in the nineteenth century.

16. Fox and stork – At this time, too, Aesop’s fables inspired the button makers of France.

17. Sagittarius – Signs of the zodiac were also popular, then.

18. Bird and flowers – fine French Victorian Cloisonne enamel with steel-point border.

19. Canio – the clown from Pagliacci, another button from the opera set in brass.

20. The goosegirl – from a group of French Victorian brass buttons, based on favorite fairy tales.

Buttons above provided by Herbert L J Partridge of New York, authority on fine buttons (1955)

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Antique metal buttons: 19th-century brass

With cut steel knobs set in wheel-shaped ornaments

19th century brass buttons with cut steel knobs set in wheel-shaped ornaments

Late 19th-century button with flower design

Late 19th century buttons with design of four flowers

Antique metal buttons: Golden military

For an officer in the General Army 1852-1870

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Golden button - officer in the general army 1852-1870

Button, Button, who’s got the button? (1977)

by Al Foster – St. Louis Post-Dispatch (St. Louis, Missouri) June 27, 1977

Getting yourself together takes a bit of doing. Clothes are held together by an assortment of snaps, zippers, fasteners, hooks, eyes, strings and ties. And then there are buttons.

Sheila Mitchell of Kirkwood collects buttons, particularly antique buttons. A look at her collection is a trip into a dozen different eras and a review of centuries of lifestyles and art forms.

Among the hundreds of buttons that she has framed, or mounted on display cards, are buttons of every size, shape and material imaginable.

Antique button collection from 1860 - Courtesy Smithsonian Museum (2)
Antique button collection from 1860 – courtesy Smithsonian Museum

“This one,” she said, pointing to a dime-sized black button with a raised profile of a man’s head, “is the true American button, the first major change in American button making.”

Inscribed on the back is the name Goodyear and the date 1851. The hard, vulcanized rubber patented by Charles and Nelson Goodyear was used to make buttons long before the Goodyear name was attached to automobile tires and blimps with flashing electric lights.

In her collection are some simple American Colonial buttons. The workmanship shows the simplicity of the tools and skills of early American settlers.

Buttons were a popular trade item with the Indians who, until the coming of the white man, had more important things to consider than making buttonholes. Sheila thinks that the trade buttons were used for ornamentation rather than holding together animal-skin garments.

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Antique 19th century flat circular wood buttons with two superimposed steel stars
Antique 19th century flat circular wood buttons with two superimposed steel stars

Buttons as ornaments reached their high point in France in the early 1700s. Highly decorated buttons, often set with precious and semi-precious stones, were sewn in rows on shirts, vests, waistcoats and breeches.

A well-dressed man, attending a ball at the Court of King Louis XIV, the Sun King, might appear with more than 300 large buttons on his garments. So intricate, so elaborate and so valuable are these French Court buttons that most that remain are in museum collections.

Sheila Mitchell has a number of embossed metal buttons, produced in the late 1800s, that depict the foppery and dandyism of the court era. The raised figures on the buttons seem comical today, but they were a parody of the excesses in the French aristocracy that contributed to the French Revolution.

Military and all metal buttons from 1900
Military and all metal buttons from 1900

She has buttons made of china and porcelain, some with delicately painted portraits, others with floral or pastoral scenes. Buttons carved from the shells of oysters and mussels are included in her collection. One has a white background with the profile of a Roman senator carved from a golden shell at its center.

Hand-painted china buttons were the ones that started Sheila on a never-ending round of antique shops, flea markets, estate sales, garage sales, secondhand stores and other places where antique buttons might be found.

In Denver, she had found three porcelain studs, buttons designed to slip through the high necked blouses of the day. They would, she thought, look nice in a frame on her living room wall.

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The petite, dark-haired mother of five children grew curious about the buttons and a trip to the library opened the world of button collecting to her. The hand-painted porcelain and china buttons were from the Victorian period.

“After all,” Sheila said, “all proper Victorian girls were expected to learn china painting.” Needless to say, the variety of designs to be found on china buttons is infinite.

Antique buttons in the collection of the Cooper-Hewitt Museum as of 1982
Antique buttons in the collection of the Cooper-Hewitt Museum as of 1982

From those three buttons grew a collection that numbers in the thousands, and Sheila leads the ranks of local button collectors as president of the Gateway Button Club. There is a national association with Mrs. Carroll H. Lorenz, also a Kirkwood resident, as president. The national group is now working on the 1978 convention to be in St. Louis. It is expected to attract more than 1000 button collectors.

Collectible buttons come in every shape and size and have been made from every type of natural and man-made material, including some made in Germany from “redundant ammunition.”

“It’s not an expensive hobby,” Sheila explained. “You can find buttons for a few cents at flea markets or possibly buy someone’s old button box at an auction for a few dollars.”

In shops, collectible buttons sell for as little as 35 cents and excellent, antique buttons can be found at prices up to $40. There are exceptions, of course, such as the French museum pieces. Occasionally there are sales of buttons from collectors or dealers in the $200-$300 price range.

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What antique boot buttons looked like
Vintage Milo buttons for shoes - boots (1909)
Vintage Milo buttons for shoes & boots (1909)
Thrills of collecting antique buttons

The thrill of button collecting isn’t in finding valuable buttons. It’s what Sheila describes as “looking for that great hidden treasure.” Her own particular treasure cache may be on a charm string.

In the 1890s, it was an American custom for a friend to give a girl a string with a button on it. Friends and family would add to the string, much as charms are added to bracelets today. The magic number was a thousand buttons. This guaranteed that the right husband would then appear on the horizon.

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The British are great button people. The annual festival of the Pearlies is an East London event. In the Cockney tradition, they assemble in large numbers, their garments covered with white pearl buttons, for the selection of a Pearly King and Queen.

In Sheila’s eye, however, the British antique buttons are a bit stuffy. “The older buttons usually lean heavily toward family crests and heraldry,” she said. In her opinion, they don’t have the delicacy of some other collectible buttons. Other collectors would strongly disagree; each collector has personal preferences and the scope is wide.

Antique Victorian diamond stone jet buttons from 1890s
Antique Victorian diamond stone jet buttons from 1890s

Antique buttons, according to the National Button Society, date back to the 1400s. The cut-off date for antique classification is 1918. However, many collectors seek out modern buttons, including the plastic button, the latest contribution of American technology to button making.

For the dedicated collector, there are national and regional competitions. The National Button Book, an official society publication, is a 30-page booklet with rules and button categories. There are more than 25 major categories. When the full list of sub-categories is counted, there are about 400 specialized classes for buttons.

Last year, at the state competition in Sedalia, Sheila Mitchell entered carefully mounted collections in eight categories, winning awards in five of them. She has also won national awards. The lady, it seems, has all of her buttons.

Grandmother’s sewing basket may have the beginning of a button collection. Friends may have a few unusual buttons to give the beginning collector. Flea markets and other sales are places to begin rummaging around.

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Identifying some floral antique buttons

Text and photos below from The Button Sampler, by Lillian Smith Albert and Jane Ford Adams (1951)

(1.) Lily-of-the-valley. Carved ivory. (2.) Dresden bouquet. Porcelain with Meissen mark of crossed swords. (3.) Flower spray. Bone, painted and gilded.

(4.) Geranium. Polychrome embroidery. Eighteenth century. (5.) Garden pink. Crystal with intaglio painting on back. Set in gold frame. (6.) Pansy. Reverse painting on glass. Metal frame. From France.

Antique buttons with flower designs
Antique buttons with flower designs

(7.) Iris. Etched metal with color rubbed in as in damascening. Oriental work. (8.) Wild rose. Plastic horn in metal rim. British registry mark on back dates it, August 14, 1849. (9.) Chrysanthemum. Pearl, engraved, gilded, and jeweled.

(1o.) Forget-me-not. Chased aluminum. Made by the Scovill Mfg. Co. of Connecticut about 189o. (11.) Poppy. Hallmarked silver. Made in Birmingham, England, 1903-4. Maker J.G. (12.) Rose, thistle, and shamrock, national flowers of England, Scotland, and Ireland. Gilt. (Nos. 4, 6, 8, reduced; others actual size.)

Antique buttons with floral designs
Antique buttons with flower designs

About these antique story and fable buttons

These vintage buttons were especially popular during the late nineteenth century.

(i.) Fox and Stork. (2.) Wolf and Crane. (3.) Fox and Crow. (4.) The Little Fisherman. (5.) Hop-o-My-Thumb. (6.) Red Riding Hood and Wolf. (7.) Pied Piper. (8.) William Tell and Son. (9.) Robinson Crusoe. (All specimens are found in various sizes.)

Antique buttons - Story and fable buttons popular during the late nineteenth century
Antique buttons representing stories and fables popular during the late nineteenth century

Information about 12 antique animal buttons

(1.) Cat, polychrome enamel. (2.) Cow, silver. (3.) Stag, gold in-laid in steel. (4.) Dog, carved bone set in metal frame. (5.) Elephant, tinted metal. (6.) Frog, metal set with rhinestones. 

Antique buttons with animal designs from the late 19th century
Antique buttons with animal designs from the late 19th century

(7.) Horse, silvered metal. (8.) Lamb, mosaic in gold frame. (9.) Lion, stamped brass. (10.) Monkey, carved ivory. (11.) Snake, tinted metal. (12.) Squirrel, metal.

On the whole, these were probably made in the late 1800s. No. 3, one of a set of sixteen buttons depicting the cycle of a deer, was made about 185o.

Antique buttons with animal designs from the late 19th century
Antique buttons with animal designs from the late 19th century

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