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]

Sense & Sensibility Patterns

Sense & Sensibility Patterns

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    

Too Many To Count Lot Metal Rhinestone Plastic Vintage Antique Modern ButtonsMost Stunning Antique Stacked Carved Mop Shell Button W/ Incised Gold ButterflyWow 2+ Lbs Antique Vintage Buttons Lot Celluloid Glass Rhinestone CharmstringExtraordinary Large Antique Carved Mop Shell Cameo Button W/ Victorian CoupleLot Antique Vintage Bakelite Buttons Dark Cream, Black Combo, Shapes CookiesBritish Edwardian Silver Button Set Of 6 In Original Leather Box!!! - MusiciansWow!! Brilliant X Large Antique Champleve Enamel Button Flower W/ Inset PastesOver 7lbs. Vintage Bakelite Celluloid Glass Metal Old Plastic Button Buttons LotA Rare Large Bimini Studio Glass Button White/gold Prancing Horse Flowerpot LogoAntique Victorian Brass Openwork Button Clear Set Pastes W Turquoise Enamel DotsOutstanding X Large Antique Metal Button Steel Pansy Flower W/ Cut Steel RimAntique 19th Century Victorian Honey Horn Button W/3 Kinds Of Posy Flowers ~ 1"Antique Set Of Figural Metal *rooster Chicken Buttons* Antique China Buttons, Calico's, Stencils, Bulls Eyes, Estate Find Rare Antique 1880's Victorian Realistic Pearl "acorn" Waistcoat ButtonVintage Lot Of Mixed Old Buttons Spectacular Large Antique Metal Picture Button Butterfly Strawberries Cut SteelsWalrus Fossil Studio Button By Wahaba - "queen Of Hearts"Vintage Satsuma Button Two Ducks In Flight W/ Gold Accents - 1 & 1/16""Incredible X Large 2" Antique~ Vtg Carved Mop Shell Button W/ Leaves~ Cut Steels20 Vintage Bakelite Buttons / Toggles Chunkies BallsAwesome Gemstone Button - SaphiretLot 34 Vintage Bakelite Buttons Gear Cookie Stacked Carve Ball Metal Inlay GreenPristine Antique French Champleve Enamel Button Robins Egg Blue W/ Cut Steels1 1/4" Antique Gilt Brass Red Champleve Enamel Button W/flowers - E.m. Paris2 Medium Art Nouveau Mucha Style Woman W/ Flowers Antique Button 1-1/16"Large Red Enamel Lizard W/ Rhinestones Vintage Button 2"Vintage Bakelite Button Lot - Carved, Shapes, Chunky And Stacked11 Antique Victorian Buttons - Enamel, Steel CutsLook 2+ Lbs Vintage Antique Buttons Lot Celluloid Rhinestone Glass CollectableWow~ Huge 2 1/4" Antique~ Vtg Gay 90's Button W/ Ruby Red Glass Center & PastesBig Lot Of Antique & Vintage Sewing Buttons #3Most Stunning Antique Openwork Metal Button W/ Robins Egg Blue Enamel & Pastes25 Vintage Wood Buttons / Carved Painted RealisticVintage Glass Fish Button Massive Antique~ Vtg Celluloid Buckle Buttons W/ Large Art Deco Shell Design25 Antique China Buttons / Calico Stencil Aluminum StencilWow 2-3 Lbs Vintage Antique Buttons Lot Celluloid Rhinestone Glass Collectable13 Vintage Buffed Celluloid ButtonsExquisite Antique Art Nouveau Buckle Buttons W/ Amethyst Glass & Flowers LeavesStunning Antique Lot 160 Vtg Victorian Picture Brass Filigree "mirror" ButtonsStunning Antique Paris Back Carved Mop Shell In Metal Button W/ Star & Cut SteelLg Sz Antique Brass Button Detailed Garden Spider Design - 1 & 3/8"Large Silver Turquoise & Coral Vintage Button 1-9/16" Backmark 92522 Golden Age Gilt Era Buttons - Nice Large Lot - Floral, Etched, Tin Backs, +Vintage Lot Of Mother Of Pearl Shell Buttons All Are Carved Or Fancy Sewing 19 Matching Cut Steel & Brass Antique, Noble Man W/ Fancy Hat & Collar Buttons35 Antique Goodyear Hard Rubber Buttons - Novelty Rubber Company28 Golden Age Gilt Era Buttons - Nice Large Lot - Floral, Tin Backs, +Antique Meiji Satsuma Button Detailed Orchid Flower On Cobalt 13/16 " 8 Vintage Dark Green Buttons Like Clothespins Possibly Bakelite Sewing CraftsVintage Satsuma Button Colorful Geisha Holds Fan W/ Gold Accents 1 & 1/16" 5 Pound Lot Of Antique/vintage Used Buttons Sewing Crafts Loose & On Cards Huge Vtg Estate Lot 750+ Early Antique Glass Color Buttons Amazing CollectionAdorable 1940's Aqua French Porcelain "bunny Rabbit" Button W/kt Gold TrimVintage Lot 14 Carved Mother Of Pearl Shell Buttons Sewing Collectibles FlowerLook 2-3 Lbs Vintage Antique Buttons Lot Celluloid Rhinestone Glass Collectable Antique Vintage Button Lot/old Collection Bakelite Cut-steel Carved Mop GlassAntique Vintage Button Lot/old Collection Bakelite Celluloid Victorian GlassLg Sz Antique Pierced Brass Button Steel Crescent Moon Harvest Scene 1 & 7/16""