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    

Superb Antique French Box Au Bon Marche Paris Buttons Late 1800s Milk GlassSet 10 Vintage Cc Logo Chanel Gold Black Enamel Loose Sewing ButtonsAntique Vintage Buffed Celluloid Depicting War Plane, Artillery Tank ButtonArt Deco Enamelled Flower Button, Outstanding Color, On Silver Loop Shank Vintage Antique Metal Face Button With Enamel Painting - Py1211 Vintage Bakelite Realistic ButtonsH2 Big Lot 37 Cookie Art Deco Gear Pierced Colorful Vintage Bakelite ButtonsAntique Meiji Satsuma Button Pentagon Shape W/ Colorful Flowers 1 & 1/16"7 Antique Porcelain Satsuma Buttons / Butterfly & FlowersButtons Beautiful Vintage & New~glass Metal Rhinestone..turquoise ...m58Fabulous Antique 1902 Silver & Mother Of Pearl Folding Button Hook In Case C.w.f56 Small Vintage Clear Colored/depression Glass ButtonsAntique Vintage Celluloid Engraved Dyed Stained Glass Design Button2014 Ooak Janie Comito~ Petite Bijou Pin Cushion Inspired By Victorian ButtonBakelite Vintage Bootie Buttons Three Old Buttons Baby Yellow6 Vintage Czechoslovakia Figural Glass Buttons On Card Life Under Sea FishVintage Celluloid Button Realistic Hand Formed Pea Pod 1930s Marion WeeberLarge Antique Pierced Brass Button Ginkgo Leaves W/ Cut Steel Accents 1 & 1/2"Chanel Lot Of 20 Authentic Matching Black & Gold Quilted Cc Buttons Nr Antique Edwardian Silver Handled Double Lion Mask Button Hook Sterling100 Vintage Plastic Realistic Flower ButtonsAntique Leather Sporting Button Hound Dog W/ Brass Border French Bk Mk 1"Antique Meiji Satsuma Button Colorful Butterfly W/ Gold Accents 5/8"260 Vintage Clear & Colored Glass Motif Buttons 25 Antique & Vintage Carved Shell Buttons / Med. & Lrg.Lot Of 8 Lbs Antique/vintage Buttons Glass Metal Bakelite Lucite Mop FiguralVintage Satsuma Button Geisha In Purple Kimono 1 & 3/16" Bk Mk Vintage Oval Burwood Button Football Quarterback Pictorial Lg Sz 1 & 11/16"Antique Buttons ~ Victorian Era Metal Kate Greenaway & Other Children11 Antique & Vintage Picture Buttons /castles Scenes/ Eiffel Tower/ Lighthouse1 Antique Infantry Button - Young Smith Co New York - 1 PieceVintage Wood Buttons W/ Bakelite Inlay 1 & 1/8, AntiqueMassive 18 Lb. Lot Of Vintage & Antique Buttons All Kinds Huge Variety!Antique Victorian Carved Mother Of Pearl Dog / Wolf Head Cloak /cape Clasp Superb Bimini Style Glass Button 28 X 32mm. Winged AnimalLot Of 13 Pounds Lbs 10 Oz Vintage To Now Buttons, Plastics, Mop, Wood, All Size5 Sets Vintage Plastic Realistic Buttons7 Antique Porcelain Stud Buttons / FlowersButtons Beautiful Mix Vintage & New~glass Metal Rhinestone M5Antique Meiji Era Japanese Satsuma Button W/gold Stipple Ground & 3 Lovely WomenAntique Victorian Celluloid Button Fancy Colorful Flower Bud Design 1 & 3/16"Gorgeous Antique 19th C Set Of 14 Black Glass Buttons Floral Gold Gilt Decor YqzSet Of Four (4) Art Nouveau Solid Silver Buttons, Beautiful Lady Hat & NecklaceLot Of Civil War Buttons,indian War Buttons,state Seal Buttons,uniform ButtonsAssortment Of 10 Calico China ButtonsSet Of 8 Vintage Chanel Gold 31 Rue Cambon 3/4'' Cc Logo Sewing Buttons StampedHuge Lot Vintage Colorful Fancy Cards Carded Buttons Glass Plastic Metal 140 +Antique Vintage Casein/plastic Art Deco Design ButtonHuge Lot Antique & Vintage Plastic & Rhinestone Buttons - Many Sets Of 4+Set 4 Vintage Chanel Brass Crown Buttons StampedAntique French Enamel Button Hand Painted Rose Over Pink Champleve 3/4"Antique Sewing Button Collection Satsuma Enamel Jet Crystal Paste Rosette ShankLot 97 Vintage Early Brass Carved Buttons Big Lot Vintage Sewing Goodies Notions-wooden Spool Thread-darning Egg-buttons+-Unique Antique Military Uniform Button Early-mid 1800's? Eagle W/ 13 StarsAntique Lot Of 10 Different 2 Size China Calico Blue Porcelain ButtonsTin Full 2 Pounds Vintage ButtonsAntique Horn Button Cinnamon Color Comet Celestial Pictorial 1 & 3/16" Bk MkSet Of 2 Chanel Large Pearl Gold Logo Buttons Sew PlatesButtons Beautiful Mix Vintage & New~glass Metal Rhinestone M7