A Short History of Buttons Print E-mail
Written by Steffani McChesney   
Monday, 23 February 2009 00:00

Buttons are used extensively as embellishments on quilts and wearable art, but because of their rather mundane position in the quilting and sewing world the average person is not aware of their interesting beginnings.

Buttons have been made of many different materials. As might be expected, bone was one of the earliest substances used. Button-shaped objects were made as early as the Stone Age. In 3,000 BC Phoenician men wore button-shaped pendants made of bone. Objects, which may have been buttons, have been found in Egyptian tombs dating from the 6th Dynasty, circa 2,800 BC. Antler and horn buttons have been made since the 1600s, usually out of scraps left over from making combs and other household objects.

Experts believe that these early examples were not used to fasten clothing but as decoration. Some believe that buttons were first used for fastening garments in 12th century France. French bead makers began making buttons for this purpose out of bone.

Leather buttons were manufactured during the Middle Ages by bookbinders in Europe. In early America, they were made by harness makers and shoemakers.

Metal button-like objects, found dating from the Bronze Age (circa 3,500 BC), were used as studs on leather belts and other garments.

Wooden buttons have been used since the 18th century. The oldest examples were simple designs made in hardwoods such as apple, boxwood and yew. By the 19th century wooden buttons were carved and/or painted for decoration as well as utility. Wood was widely used during World War II because of the shortage of shell, bone and metal.

Glass began to be used for buttons in the 18th century. Queen Victoria popularized black glass buttons in 1861 when she went into mourning at the death of her husband, Prince Albert.

Button making really took off in the late 17th and early 18th centuries because of the demands of fashion and better manufacturing techniques which made buttons less expensive and more available to the common man. New materials being used included ceramics, pearls, beads, sequins, jewels, hair, silk and wool. Ivory, jet and pearl shell were also used.

Around the beginning of the 20th century crocheted buttons became popular in France and Ireland. A style called the French knob was adopted by prostitutes in Paris, which kept other Parisians from wearing it for obvious reasons.

Other materials became widely used in the 20th century. Fruit pits from peaches, apricots and plums have been called into service. Vegetable ivory from the fruit of the tagua palm has been used for buttons since the 1840s in England. Buttons made of tagua ivory are sure to become more common due to ecological concerns.

Plastic buttons are cheaper to produce and more durable than natural materials and have replaced buttons made of pearl shell. Plastic can also be molded into an infinite variety of shapes and colors adding to its popularity as a substance used to make buttons.

The word button comes from the French word bouton (the root of which is bouter meaning to push). The first buttonhole to have a button pushed through it is believed to have appeared sometime in the 13th century.

During the Renaissance buttons were very important to fashion. Wealthy men wore jeweled buttons on their extravagant clothes. Women were equally decorative in gowns designed with button-on sleeves.

When buttons became widely affordable in the 18th century they were used by all levels of society and became trade items sent to all parts of the globe. Buttons were used decoratively and functionally in many ways wherever they could be found.

Buttons appeared as embellishment on the folk costumes of the peoples of the former USSR who lived along the trade routes crossing the vast Eurasian continent. Many people, particularly nomadic ones, have usually used buttons as a major decorative element on all their clothing rather than for functional uses.

Probably the best-known button-covered clothing has been created and worn by the Pearly Kings and Queens. The tradition originated among the costermongers, better known as Cockneys, of London’s East End who sold fruits, vegetables and household goods on the street during the 19th century. The button-covered Cockneys were written about by Charles Dickens as early as 1834, but it wasn’t until 1880 that Henry Croft invented the first Pearly costume as we know it today.

Croft, who was less than five feet tall, felt he had to do something to draw attention to himself when collecting money for charity at carnivals. He hit upon the idea of using the Cockney penchant for decorating their clothes with buttons and carried it to extremes. He completely covered a heavy brown wool suit with smoked pearl buttons, inventing the modern Pearly suit. To honor his invention, he is buried in London’s Finchley cemetery in a tomb decorated with a statue of him wearing his Pearly suit.

Both men and women wear Pearly suits sporting upwards of 60,000 pearl buttons of various sizes. The first Pearly suits were merely covered with buttons in random arrangements, but nowadays they are covered in original designs developed by the wearer. It is considered gauche to copy someone else’s patterns when sewing on all those buttons.

Pacific Northwest Coast Indians are also famous for their use of white pearl buttons to embellish their garments. Blankets traded for furs were first decorated with abalone shells and feather. When Spanish, English and Russian traders brought shiny white mother-of-pearl buttons to trade they began to be used exclusively because the buttons came with holes already drilled in them and they were very shiny.

Buttons are now used by clothes designers and craftspeople for all sorts of creative applications, most notably wearing apparel, household objects, decorative crafts and quilts. Their use is only limited by the imagination.


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