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    

21 Small Vintage Two Color Bakelite ButtonsAntique Victorian Gilt Stud Button Trio In Original Fitted CaseLot Of Antique~ Vtg Victorian Blue Glass Charmstring Buttons Rosette, Pin Shank+Vintage Bakelite Button Lot Carved Cherry Red Green Butterscotch Apple JuiceVintage Antique Green Glass Depression Lot 111 Art Deco Buttons Pretty Large Brass Cat In A Brass Cup Antique Button 1-1/2"Vintage Pictorial Glass Button....moonglow Anchor & Waves...old, German1770-1783 British Army Queen's Own 7th Dragoon 1st Issue Silverplate Cuff button13 Vintage Bakelite Realistic ButtonsRare Tiny Micro Mosaic Button Woman In DressQuality Chinese Antique 19thc Button Hook Dragon Detailing By Wang Hing C1900Scarce Vintage Marion Weeber Button From The Busy Bee Collection, Fall 1949110+ Antique Vintage 3 Hole Calico Stencil Gaiter Whistle + China Buttons Lot56 Small Antique Metal Buttons / Cut Steel DesignsAntique Vintage Bakelite Button Lot/old Collection-cookie-chunky-stacked-carvedBizarre C. 1870 Quirky Old Brass Tintype Button W Photograph Of A Bone Button !Edwardian Antique Brass Crinoline Lady & Flowers Boots Shoes Button HookBig Lot Of Vintage Buttons - 29 Pounds! -no Reserve-1+lbs Antique Vintage Button Lot/huge Old Collection-all Types Styles ColorsLot Of Antique~ Vtg Victorian Glass Rose Buttons Precision Inlay, Charmstring++Lot Of Antique~ Vtg Small Enamel Buttons Champleve, Rose, Cut Steels, Dimi Doll+Antique Victorian Celluloid Button Fancy Brass Over Green Liner W/ Glass AccentWonderful Large Antique~ Vtg Metal Picture Button 2 Whippet Greyhound Dogs Bk MkLot Of Antique~ Vtg Rose Buttons Glass Paperweight, French Champleve Enamel++Incredible Antique White & Black Glass Cameo Button W/ Pastes & Rosette ShankVtg Antique Lot Victorian Old Button Twinkle Floral Pierced Metal PictureDarling Antique~ Vtg Pewter Metal Picture Button W/ Bunny Rabbit In CloversAntique ~ Outstanding Enamel ~ Sterling SilverAntique French Enamel Button Young Man Pictorial W/ Fancy Champleve Border Vintage Antique Lot Button Bakelite Goofie Realistic Chunky Cookie OldVintage Antique & Vintage Button Lot Bakelite Metal Paris Back Celluloid MoreVintage All Flower Floral Buttons Pierced Carved Matches & Colors 266 Buttons!!Large Indian Woman Braids & Headdress Velvet Back Brass Antique Button 1-7/16"Vtg Antique Lot Victorian Old Buttons Mother Of Pearl Shell Carved MopLarge Art Glass And Cut Steel Floral Border Gay 90's Brass Antique Button 1-1/2"25 Antique & Vintage Carved Shell Buttons / Lrg. MediumBlue Glass Jewel W/ Rhinestone And Leaf Border Brass Antique Button 1-1/16"13 Vintage Extruded/spaghetti Celluloid ButtonsAntique 19th Century Pierced Sterling Silver Button W/heirloom Roses - 1897 MarkMixed Lot Of Buttons Some Vintage Plastic Metal Mother Of Pearl RhinestoneHobo Rabbit With A Bindle Stick Brass Vintage Or Antique Button 1-1/4" Extraordinary Large Antique Sterling Silver Picture Button Native In HeaddressLot 50 Flower Brass Metal Glass Mop Vintage And Antique Buttons 1-1/4" - 3/8" Antique French Enamel Button Hand Painted Flowers Fancy Champleve Border9 Antique Victorian Celluloid & Metal Buttons / 1 LithographPair Of Matching Champleve Enamel Waist Coat Emaux Peints - Mid To Late 1800'sAntique Buttons Lot #40- Finck's Red Bar, Pig 1918 Bmk Work Clothes Overalls15 Antique Vintage Calico Stencil Gaiter + China Button Lot25 Antique & Vintage Picture Buttons / Moon & StarsExcellent Large Antique Victorian Metal Picture Button Pair Of Owls On BranchVtg Antique Lot Victorian Old Buttons Celluloid Wafer Carved Lucite ExtrudedLot Small Tiny Vintage Antique Glass Buttons Colors Rhinestones PaintedLot Of 24 Vintage Bakelite Buttons Antique Vintage Button Lot Brass Picture Carnival Glass Enamel Back MarksWonderful Lot Antique China Calico ButtonsRealistic "locust Cicada Bug Insect" Vintage Antique French Metal Picture ButtonLot Victorian Fancy Metal ButtonsLot 130 Brass Metal Glass Mop Vintage And Antique Buttons 1-3/8" - 3/8" Antique Stamped Brass Button Perched Owl W/ Castle & Crescent MoonAntique Early Plastic Vtg Mixed Celluloid Bakelite Buttons Lot Pudding Buffed