Collecting Antique Buttons

Buttons are collectibles and antiques, like the materials they were made from and their long history dating back to Egypt; they were made originally as decorations, then later become useful.

Buttons, buttons, everywhere, made of glass, plastic, papier-mâché, porcelain, wood, ivory, animal antler and bone, metal, semi-precious and precious jewels, pearl, and scrimshaw, even nuts. These and many other materials have been made into buttons throughout the centuries. Painting, etching, embroidery, and other forms of artwork also went into decorating many of these same buttons. Originally made as decorations, not as clothing fasteners, the first buttons can be traced as far back as 4000 years ago. Buttons have even been found in ancient tombs from Egypt. What does this tell us? That an item as simple as a decoration has evolved throughout the centuries to become both a useful and coveted item.

Men and women have used buttons to lavishly adorn themselves throughout the ages. King Louis XIV, ruler of France from 1643 to 1715, was known to spend large amounts of money on buttons. King Francis I, ruler of France from 1515 to 1547, had 13,600 gold buttons on a single coat. At some point in history, which no one can be sure of, someone realized that slipping a fabric cord around a button, or into a slit cut into the fabric that the button was attached too, made what was just a decorative item, into a useful item. Clothing could be "˜snugged' up, making a loose fitting blouse or robe, into a form fitting design. This led to advancements in clothing styles that is still being achieved through modern day.

It is no surprise then, that buttons are collected today. People search out different designs, materials, or buttons from specific time-periods. I have even heard buttons described as miniature examples of art documenting every period of history throughout our past. Even as buttons evolved from being strictly decorations, to practical items, they continued to be decorative as well. Because much work and material went into the making of buttons, they were often saved from worn out clothing to be used and reused. This practice has thankfully salvaged many of these throughout the years. Lets look at some different forms buttons have taken through the years.


Buttons from the late 1800's, often referred to as "˜pearl' were actually made of shells. After being cut and intricately decorated and polished, they resembled the then sought after pearl, and so quickly acquired the name. Pearled buttons are made still today from mussel shells taken from the Tennessee River.


Glass buttons are some of the earliest examples. As skilled glassblowers protected other forms of their art, so did they with their techniques for making buttons. Available in a rainbow of colors and finishes, collecting glass buttons alone will surely keep a new collector occupied for years.

Wood and Thread

Wood was used for the base of many buttons, then covered with fabric or needlepoint. Women from poorer households would sew coverings for both their own use and to sell to wealthier neighbors. Silks, cottons, and wool were common threads used.

Bone and Antler

Examples of bone, often the shinbones of camels, cattle, or elk and deer, can be found on items dating back hundreds and thousands of years, right up until modern day. Antlers, from elk, mule deer, and other antlered animals, are often cut and either left plain, decorated as in scrimshaw, and even "˜burned' to color the edges. Once very common on items from both Native Americans, Eskimos, and other people of the lands, bone and antler buttons are making a resurgence as many other of these peoples artworks are also becoming recognized for their truly great art.

Buttons of Today

If you have been in any craft or discount store that sells craft supplies, you have been treated to the wide array of buttons available today. While buttons are mass-produced all over the world, many small companies also make buttons. From kittens to ladybugs, flags to birdhouses, gingerbread people to snowmen, buttons have been made representing nearly every holiday, occasion, event, and person that you can possibly think of. Small porcelain buttons proclaiming "˜I Love Grandma' and "˜World's Greatest Teacher' to plastic buttons resembling more expensive metal and pearl buttons. Pewter buttons in the shapes of deer and scissors, birds and carrots, and again, any shape you can imagine, is another popular material today. As an image of something becomes collectible in other forms, you can be sure that buttons representing this item will be produced, making buttons right up there at the top of many collectors' list. Take for example the rediscovery of "˜Angels' in the recent past. Buttons representing everything from angelic angels to playful angels have turned up on buttons manufactured today. True collectors also noted that everything that is new today, ahs probably been done already, and again, buttons, because they have been around for so long, are a sure way to prove this. Buttons with images of angels on them can be dated back hundreds of years ago. They also do the opposite and prove that some things are newer. You may find a very old button with an image of a rabbit, but only today would you find a button in the shape of a floppy disk or even a computer itself, and yes, these shaped are available! Button collecting is truly for anyone that collects anything at all.

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