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    

V.fine Cased Set Six C1909 Sterling Silver Guilloche Enamel Dress Shirt ButtonsRare Guilloche Enamel Button With Gold Butterflies Marked SwissEstate Lot Vintage Buttons Czech Glass Cut Steel Deco Bohemian Rhinestone 2.5lbs12 Matching Satsuma Wisteria Buttons 6 - 1" & 6 - ½" Handpainted W/lots Of GoldLarge Antique Steel Cup Button - Woman & Fan - Fops - MerveilleuseStunning 300+ Antique Vintage Collectible Button Lot~picture~victorian~glass+Large Red Bakelite Propeller With A Compass In Center Button 2-1/2" Buttons Lot Of Beautiful Vintage & New Glass Metal Rhinestones Blue & Green M152+ Lbs Antique Vintage Button Lot/huge Old Collection-all Types-see Pics!Large Antique True Lacy Glass Button W/ Gold Flowers & PaisleyMagnificent X Large Antique~ Vtg Gay 90's Button W/ Faceted Glass & Cut SteelsAntique Buttons ~ Collector's Card Of 50 China Calicos1+ Lb Tiny Antique Vintage Button Lot/600+sm Buttons-huge Variety-colors-styles8 Vintage Antique Metal Flower & Lady Picture ButtonsAntique Button ~ Unique Signed Cobalt Satsuma W All Over Gold Floral DesignAntique Buttons ~ Collector's Card Of 54 China Stencils Antique Victorian Parti Silver Luster Black Glass Buttons Lot Of 20,11/16"-7/8"Vintage Victorian 1800's Button Lot Display 89pcs Figurals Animals Flowers EtcButtons Lots Of Beautiful Vintage & New Glass & Rhinestones Reds & Pinks M21Stunning Antique Lapis Lazuli Button W/delicate Silver Granulation & Rope Work5+ Lbs Lot Of Antique & Vtg Collectible Buttons From An Estate- 1800's VictorianAntique Compo Button W/ Brass & Pearl Beetle InlayAntique Civil War Uniform Button - Union Army Artillery - Horstmann & Sons PhiLovely Japanese Antique Satsuma Button Unusual Shape With 3 Women/2children Antique Stamped Brass Button Fox & Grapes Fable W Cut Steel GrapesRare Solid Silver& Scottish Agate Chatelaine Button Hook Aaron Lufkin DennisonAuthentic Chanel Logo Cream & Gold 8 Button Set Pristine!Antique Large Satsuma Button - Butterfly ButterfliesBakelite Buttons Unusual Group Rare Cookies Squares Balls Clear Red Cone 25 Wow5 Day Only Nice Variety 43 Antique Older Vintage Metal Buttons #designsAntique Vintage Button Lot Estate Collection Victorian Enamel Glass CelluloidButtons Outstanding Vintage & New~glass Metal Rhinestone Pink & Turquoise M11Antique Charmstring Button Transparent Green Candy Mold Swirl BackAntique Buttons ~ 18 China Shades Of OrangeAntique Glass Scarab Beetle Set In Brass Button#5i Breathtaking 2-1/4" Ruby Red Scrolls Gay Nineties Antique Jewel Button Huge Lot Small Antique Metal Buttons - Mirror, Picture And MoreAntique Horn Button W/ Iridsent Shell & Silver Bird & Nest W/ Eggs Inlay #6w Lot Of 8 Cookies Cone Top Looking Bakelite Red Bell Shape ButtonsLot Of 270 Antique Vintage Brass Glass Victorian Mop Plastic Celluloid Buttons 12 Antique Jacksonian Buttons Tree Harp Thistle Wheat Horse Bird ShipHuge Lot Of Vintage Buttons Plastic Mop Metal Bakelite Rhinestone 3+ Lbs Estate Antique Brass Drummer Boy Busting From Drum Button 1-1/16" Rare CircusAntique Victorian Pierced, Stone Button Lot 33 ~ Metal ~ PicturesAntique Button Brass Owl Perched On A Branch Above Two Mice 1 & 3/16"Fine Old Antique Japanese Satsuma Pottery Hand Decorated Geisha Sewing Buttons Huge Lot Vintage Metal Work Clothes Uniform Buttons - Many W/ Names - Old LotAntique Charmstring Button Honey Color Flower Mold W/ Scissor Swirl Back33 Workclothes Work Clothes, Transportation Brass Buttons Vintage AntiqueAntique, Vintage Large Celluloid Airplane Button/ Estate Button Collection Lot 5 Antique Victorian Charmstring Buttons - Brass & Realistic Glass AcornAntique Vintage Metal Buttons Victorian Tree Angel Picture Velvet Perfume Red TiAntique Civil War Uniform Button - Union Army Infantry - Scovill Mf'g Co. BkmFrog Smoking Pipe Button PictureVintage Estate Button -early Plastics- Celluloid, Lucite, Bakelite No Reserve!!#5h Huge Lot Shell Mop Mother Of Pearl Buttons Diminutives -lg 5+ Lbs WhistlesSet Of Six Antique Victorian Buttons 1/2"Lot Of 315 + Small Antique/ Vintage Buttons/ Glass/ Metal +Authentic Chanel Logo Black Enamel And Metal 4 Button Set Pristine!Lot Of 11 Victorian Antique Steel Cut Brass Copper Buttons