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    

Antique Button Gay 90s Elaborate Design W Cut Steels & Gilt Absolutely Stunning!Set Of 3 Carved Bakelite Horse ButtonsVintage Bakelite Buttons - Lot Of 80 Various Shapes And Colors - Free ShippingMixed Lot Antique Victorian Vintage Butttons Metal Shell Glass Vegetable Ivory Antique & Vintage Buttons ~ 250+ Victorian Era Glass & Metals, China, Horn ++7 Lbs Antique Vintage Button Lot/huge Old Button Lot-amazing Collection-must SeeBig Lot Of 88 Vintage Plastic & Bakelite Buttons And Buckles, Lot#14Antique Charles Horner Chester Silver Peacock Enamel Buttons25 Small Vintage Red & Yellow Bakelite Buttons / Chunkie Gears ++Vintage 10 Piece Set Chanel Pearl Black Gold Cc Logo Loose Buttons For JacketLarge Lot Of 120 Antique Victorian Buttons, Cut Steel, Florals, All Metal Lot 125 Vintage Realistic Hat And Shoe Buttons / Glass, Celluloid WoodVintage 6 Piece Set Chanel Brass 3/4'' 31 Rue Cambon Cc Logo Buttons For Jacket Very Large Over 10lb. Lot Vintage Antique Modern Craft Altered Art Buttons13 Vintage Buffed Celluloid ButtonsLot Of 150 Antique Vintage Brass Glass Victorian Mop Plastic Celluloid Buttons Antique Vintage Buttons Huge Lot 7lb 9oz Glass Military Bakelite Celluloid +more13 Small Antique & Vintage Enamel Buttons / 1 Bird PictureLarge Lot Of 50 Antique Victorian Buttons, Cut Steel, Florals, All Metal Lot 9Lot 31 Antique Vintage Buttons Brass Glass Metal Large Lot Of 70 Antique Victorian Buttons, Cut Steel, Florals, All Metal Lot 2Large Lot Of 80 Antique Victorian Buttons, Cut Steel, Florals, All Metal Lot 1213 Antique Black Glass Enamel ButtonsHuge Lot Box Full Over 9 Pounds Lbs Vintage Old Buttons All Kinds Sorts SewingLarge Lot Of 50 Antique Victorian Buttons, Cut Steel, Florals, All Metal Lot 830 Antique Waistcoat Jewel Buttons / 5 CameosAntique Vintage Lot Of 27 Horn, Teddy Bear, Horse,satsuma, Cinnabar Etc ButtonsBig Lot Of Vintage Buttons - 40 LbsVintage 6 Piece Set Chanel Brass Cc Logo Loose Buttons For JacketVintage 6 Piece Set Chanel Gold 1'' Cut Out Cc Logo Buttons JacketAntique Meiji Satsuma Button Colorful Bird & Peony Flowers Cobalt & Gold 1 & 1/8Antique Vintage Button Lot Huge! Glass Buttons,metal Buttons Also Belt Buckles.49 Small Antique & Vintage Metal Rhinestone ButtonsShakudo Button From The 1950's - (mixed Metal) - Large 1 5/8" DiameterVintage Huge Lot Over 6 Lbs Buttons Odds Ends Sewing Craft Basket UnsortedLarge Lot Of 80 Antique Victorian Buttons, Cut Steel, Florals, All Metal Lot 3# 47 Antique 1800's ((( Brass Engraved Buttons )))) Crane,flower,light HouseExtra Large Over 10lb. Lot Vintage Antique Modern Craft Altered Art Buttons18 Vintage Bakelite Buttons Realistics Gears Tools Bingo Dwarf Ball Top Etc.Special Lot Of 17 Antique Metal Picture Buttons - Plant Life, Cut SteelsButtons Lots Of Beautiful Vintage & New Glass Metal Rhinestones Aqua & White M331+ Lb Tiny Antique Vintage Button Lot/500+sm Buttons-huge Variety-colors-stylesAntique Black Glass Button 2 Frogs W/ Spear & Snail W/ Carnival Luster 11/16"Antique Pierced Brass Button Bee Insect W/ Flowers DesignLarge Lot Of 65 Antique Victorian Buttons, Cut Steel, Florals, All Metal Lot 4Vintage 6 Piece Set Chanel Yellow And Silver Cc Logo Loose Buttons For JacketTurtle Realistic Chunky Button Carved Bakelite Casein Plastic Root Beer Color25 Antique China & Aluminum Stencil Buttons21 Antique & Vintage Glass Charmstring Buttons / Red & PinkOld French Metal Button Snake Charmer W/ Pierced Multiple Snakes BorderVintage Lot Of 4# Of Old Metal Tin Buttons Sewing Crafting Sets Lot Of Old Victorian Buttons Jet Black Fraternal Knights Of Pythias Oddfellows9 Antique & Vintage Picture Buttons / HorsesLarge Lot Of 50 Antique Victorian Buttons, Cut Steel, Florals, All Metal Lot 10Antique Hallmarked Sterling Silver Button Art Nouveau Fairy Plays Lyre Nice RimHundreds Of Vintage Metal -brass -glass- Shell ButtonsAntique/vintage Binder With Buttons Inside.Vintage Buttons Flower Shapes Sweet Lot For Crafts Weddings 143 Total Free ShipBig Lot Antique China, Bone & Shoe ButtonsVintage Button Lot Over 9 Lbs! White, Cream, China, Plastic, Mop, Shell, Glass