As long as human beings have needed to keep their clothing fastened, buttons have been there to do the work. Buttons can be made out of just about anything, from antlers and bone to glass and ceramics to metals and stone. There are "Diminutive" buttons (less than 3/8" across) and "Large" buttons (greater than 1 1/4" wide), "Old" buttons (pre-1918), and "Modern/Vintage" ones (post-1918). Military buttons are in a class by themselves, with categories for flat buttons made of lead or pewter, two-part convex buttons, and buttons produced for officers. But whatever their material, size, age, or lineage, buttons are fascinating little objects, items that are so utilitarian yet so varied, they just about beg to be collected.

Unlike some collectibles, buttons have very few parts. There is the face of the button, of course, which can be painted, embroidered, or carved. Then there’s the back, which is home to the button’s shank. This is the loop that allows you to attach a button to an article of clothing. Some shanks are built into the button—these are called self shanks. Others have shanks made out of small loops of metal, which are attached to the button in any number of ways. Some buttons have no shanks at all—instead, the button is pierced with two, three, or four holes so it can be sewn directly onto a garment.

One of the earliest forms of buttons were the Satsumas, ceramic buttons from Japan. Named for a historic ceramics center on the southernmost island of Japan, Satsumas were first made in the 17th century by Korean potters. These buttons were often painted in extraordinary detail, depicting miniature scenes from Japanese life and the natural world. The buttons didn’t make their way West until the mid-19th century, which is one reason why Satsumas from the 1800s, and even the early 1900s, are highly collectible.

Brass picture buttons from the Victorian era are also collectible. These charming discs were stamped with images taken from everything from operas to children’s books. In fact, if you wanted to tell the world you were a fan of a work of literature, you’d sew buttons featuring scenes from the novel or story on your coat or shirt. Other picture buttons took their cues from nature (flora and fauna), the sciences (stars and moons), or mythology (cupids and fairies).

Black glass buttons from the Victorian era came next. When the Queen’s husband, Prince Albert, died in 1861, the monarch took to wearing black for decades. Much of England mourned with her, prompting a rise in the popularity of black clothing and jewelry. At first, black buttons were made out of jet, a fossilized coal found near Whitby, England. But jet was very expensive, so black glass was used as a replacement.

Some black glass buttons were molded to create reliefs of plants and animals, or even detailed pictorials. Sometimes the buttons appeared to mimic fabrics; other times they were given a silver or iridescent luster to imitate needlework or crochet. Some black glass buttons were faceted while others were painted or enameled.

Another collectible type of glass button hails from Bohemia, which is now part of the Czech Republic. Between the wars, glass artisans made buttons in styles ranging from Art Deco to "realistics," which were buttons shaped like the objects they depicted. After World War II, Bohemian glassblowers produced so-called "moonglow" buttons, which had opaque bases and clear glass faces. Because it was dominated by the Soviets at that time, most of these post-war buttons were produced for export to Russia rather than the West, as evidenced by the button cards bearing Cyrillic script...

From the late 1800s through the 1920s, celluloid buttons were all the rage. Then came the Bakelite buttons, which were common in the United States from the 1920s through the 1940s. Bakelite buttons were sometimes carved and then embellished with a metal escutcheon in the shape of an animal or a plant. Others were decorated with glass sequins or costume jewels. The so-called "cookie" buttons were made out of long sections of laminated Bakelite that were then sliced into wafers, each one of which revealed a cross section of the lamination. Other types of Bakelite buttons were reverse carved and then dyed or painted from the back.

Of course, these types of buttons just begin to scratch the rich surface of this tiny collectible. Some collectors specialize in buttons in the Art Deco style, while others like the more modern look of Lucite. Still others collect based on themes—cats, dragons, Oriental imagery, famous men and women, etc.

Particularly noteworthy are the enamel buttons from the 19th and 20th centuries. Cloisonné buttons were the most difficult to produce because the process demanded that tiny threads of wire be soldered to a base. The resulting cavities were then filled with enamel and the button was fired. Champlevé enamel buttons were no less beautiful but they are generally less expensive to collect because the process of removing material from the button’s surface to create the holes for the enamel was easier to accomplish.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Sewing Machine Collector

Sewing Machine Collector

Geoff and Norma Dickens' reference site on vintage toy sewing machines from the late 1800s. Browse the images alpha… [read review or visit site]

Sensibility Vintage Images

Sensibility Vintage Images

An extensive collection of photos and ephemera illustrating changing fashion styles from 1795 to 1959. Includes por… [read review or visit site]

Clubs & Associations

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

C1809-1819 French Solid Silver Picture Buttons: Huge 7cm (2 3/4" Inches)8 X Antique Dutch Solid Silver 'cow' Picture ButtonsHuge Lot Vintage Antique Buttons Glass Bakelite ++ 6 Lbs Collectors EstateGreat And Unusual Enamel Button 1"3 X Antique Art Nouveau 1904 Birmingham Silver Buttons ~ Maidens *491853 Dutch Solid Silver Cannetille Buttons: Massive 8.5cm (3 3/8" Inches)Deco Chatelaine Sewing Hair Etui Case Mirror Button Hook & Scent Bottle 1920/30sHuge Lot Of Vintage Buttons - All Kinds - Over 6 Pounds Of Button Cards Great Button - Jasperware Medallion Set In Pearl - 1 3/8"Collection Of 115 Antique Vtg Buttons Metal Picture Carved Mop Glass Enamel Lot9 Antique & Vintage Picture Buttons / Owls / 1 Satsuma +++4 Unusual Windmill Rural Scene Vintage Buttons17 Vintage Rhinestone Set In Metal Buttons"bat" Halloween Gift 4 Collector!!~1940s Pewter~vintage Antique Picture ButtonAntique Brass Button - Saphiret Stone - Pierced DesignBeautiful 18th Century Button - "woven Silk" - 1 1/2"10 Antique Cut Steel Victorian Buttons Perfect For Costume DesignersColorful Vintage Button Lot With Bakelite Cookies, Shapes, Chunky!Lot Of 50+ Old Antique Vtg 1800's China Buttons Stencil, Inkwell, Solid Body+Victorian Hand Painted "forget Me Not" Figural "heart" Brooch & Stud Button SetLot Of Bakelite Vintage Buttons. Balls & Cubes, Size Small, & 2 Diminutive.12 Vintage Depression Glass Buttons Various Blue DesignsVintage Authentic 8 Chanel Logo Buttons Lot Signed Lot Vintage Antique Buttons 5 Pounds Huge Lot Estate All Kinds Of ButtonsAntique & Vintage Buttons ~ 80 Victorian Era Metals, Glass, Jewels Antique Vintage Small Metal Picture Button Lot~tints~cut Steels~cherubs~flowersButtons Victorian Vintage & New~glass Metal & Black M22Vintage Button Lot Plastic Metal Wood Glass Mother Of Pearl & Shoe Buttons 4+ Lb12 X Antique French Solid Silver Tunic Buttons : A.p. & Cie, ParisAntique Solid 925 Sterling Silver Handle Steel Lower Boxed Shoe Horn Button HookAntique Brass Livery Button Peacock W/ Tail Feathers Wide On Chapeau 1" HaywardAntique French Porcelain Button. Transfer, & Hand Painting. About 13/16" Dia.11 Antique & Vintage Metal Picture Buttons / Castles & Scenes Antique French Champleve Enamel & Pierced Brass Button - Gorgeous!Lot Of 25 Old Antique Vtg 1800's China Buttons Stencil, Calico, Ringer, Rare++Great Lot Of Small Victorian Metal Buttons/ Pictures +Antique Solid 925 Sterling Silver Hallmarked Large Ebony Handle Button Hook25 Antique China Stencil ButtonsAntique/vtg Large Lot Of Buttons 7 1/2 Lbs. Small. Large. Brass, Wood, Plastic 4 Antique Carved Shell Buttons Iridescent W/ Various Designs Antique Cloisonne' Enamel Button W/ Steels. Extra Large Button, U Shank, 1-1/2+"Lot Antique Victorian & Vintage Buttons - Glass Metal Rhinestone - Green & BlueLot Antique Buttons Glass Metal Military Abalone Bakelite With Tin / Wood Box Lot Of 17 Antique Victorian Cut Steel Buttons - - All Nice13 Vintage Extruded/spaghetti Celluloid ButtonsLarge Antique Gay 90's Jewel Button - Broken Cabochon, But Still Pretty Nice"ant & Grasshopper"read Story~1940s Metal/pewter~vintage Antique Picture ButtonRare & Quite Outstanding Antique 1930's French Extruded Celluloid Knot Button Old French Metal Button Horse Race W/ Various Jockey Scenes Border 1 & 5/8"Set 6 Antique 9ct Gold, Mother Of Pearl & Green Stone 1/2" Buttons In Hard Case7 Vintage Bakelite Buttons / Two Color & CookiesFabulous Lot Of 5 Old Antique Vtg 1800's China Stencil Buttons All Different#5s Lot Of 36 Flower Shape Realistic Mother Of Pearl Mop Dyed Carved ButtonsVtg Buttons Huge Lot 5 Lbs All Types Old Some Carded Rhinestone Bakelite Mop ++Rare Old Set Of 9 Gorgeous Vintage Light Ice Blue Rhinestone Buttons 1930'sLot Of 17 Antique Painted Metal Art Nouveau Buttons - Cut Steels - Paisley ++ Antique & Vintage Lot Of Buttons, Glass, China, Celluloid Plastics, Metal & MoreBig Mixed Lot Vintage Buttons Mother Of Pearl China Metal Wood Plastic NoveltyGreat Lot Of 3 Antique/ Victorian Metal Buttons/ Cut Steel Accents42 Antique China Buttons Ringer Bullseye Hobnail Gaiter Whistle Stencil Calico