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 ~ Acorn Vaseline Uranium Glass In Metal Antique Meiji Satsuma Button 3 Colors Of Wisteria Flowers - Cobalt & Gold 15/16"Pretty Antique Saphiret Side Sew Button R171) Singer Featherweight 1952 221 Runs W Case & Accessories Button Quilter ZigzagEstate Sale Find~antique Italian Gold Vermeil Micro Mosaic Oval ButtonLot Set 6 Bakelite Vegetable Fruit Garden Pumpkin Pineapple Flower Pot ButtonsOutstanding Scarce Antique Black Glass Picture Button Singing Bird & Man In MoonLot Of 160 Antique Vintage Brass Glass Victorian Mop Plastic Celluloid Buttons Vintage Satsuma Button Humming Bird & Flower Design W/ Gold AccentsLarge Stunning Victorian Gay 90's Jewel Button ~ Green Stone W/ Cut Steels R19Spectacular Antique~ Vtg 19th C Enamel Button W/ Unique Ornate Pewter SpindleTruly Exquisite Large Antique Gay 90's Button W/ Amethyst Glass & Cut SteelsSpecial Rare Antique~ Vtg 19th C Black Glass Charmstring Button Owl~ Swirl BackVictorian Milk Glass Spindle Button W/ Turquoise Enamel Dots & Pink Flowers R35Fine Rare English Antique 1908 Solid Sterling Silver Mr Punch Button Boot Hook Buttons Lots Of Beautiful Vintage & New Glass Metal Rhinestones Purple Green M12Antique Carved Mop Button-made In Jordan-fleur De Lis-1 1/4" Pearl-shellAntique Jacksonian Brass Button Wheat & Farming Tools W/ Back Mark 9/16 InchAntique Vintage Estate Lot 125 Buttons Bakelite Celluloid Old Plastic Cookie +Vintage 6 Piece Set Chanel Black And Gold Cc Logo Loose Buttons For JacketGreat Vintage Lot! 3.5 Lbs Buttons Baubles Bakelite Lucite Glass BeadsLot Of 19 Vintage Pewter Figural Buttons-horse, Ship, Owl, Anchor, By Christina?11 Antique Work Clothes Overall Buttons Beehive Head Light Homespun R65Remarkable Antique Etched Glass Button W/ Enameled Bird, Mop Back Set In MetalLarge Lot Of 260 Antique China Buttons Calico Stencil Inkwell Ringer BullseyeAntique/vintage (2000+) Button Lot (bakelite, Metal, Glass, Military)++++++!!!!!13 Vintage Realistic Bakelite ButtonsAntique Buttons ~ Pair Of Arts & Crafts Hammered Silver W EnamelAntique Black Glass Place Setting Button 1/2" Plate W/ Fork Spoon Knife GoldAntique/vintage Glass Buttons Lot Old And NewLarge Lot Of Vintage Colorful Plastic & Celluloid ButtonsButtons Lots Of Beautiful Vintage & New Glass Metal Rhinestones Pinks M17Vintage 2 Piece Paperweight Glass Buttons Lot Of 70 5/16"- 9/16"11+ Lbs Lot Vintage Antique Buttons Mop Horn Bakelite Metal Celluloid CompositioOld Bone Buttons Horses Very DetailedLot Of 65 Antique/vintage Buttons Picture Drum Mirror Tinted Sets Paris BackSet 6 Dimi Antique French Champleve Enamel & Gilt Button W Emaux Peints FlowersSpectacular Rare Antique Waistcoat Button Chased Brass W/ Clear Glass Owl Insert*loracwin* Great Lot 50 Bronze Buttons With Varied Decoration, 17th Century100 Vintage Ornately Carved Abalone Shell & Mother Of Pearl Buttons-many Sets Assorted Lot Of Antique Victorian Buttons #21Antique / Vintage Button Mother Of Pearl Lot Birds Clover Bakelite Metal PictureLot Of 34 Vintage Rhinestone & Rhinestone Studded Buttons, Estate Find N/r Antique/vintage Itty Bitty Glass Buttons Large Lot.Vintage Satsuma Button Colorful Peonies W/ Gold Border Beautiful! 15/16 InchWow Carved Genuine Turquoise & Bone Elepehant Button Large Realistic Blue MammalLot Of 9 1/2 Pounds Of Antique Buttons,mother Of Pearl,glass,celluloid,metal+++Chanel Buttons2 Vintage New York Us Postal Service Uniform Button Post Office DepartmentFabulous Lot Of Antique And Vintage Buttons On 4 Bracelets? - Estate FindScarce Antique Brass Button Red Riding Hood & The Wolf DesignAntique French Enamel Button Hand Painted Boat & Lighthouse W/ Cut Steel BorderAntique Pewter Buttons Lot Of 47, 1/2"-5/8"Metal Picture Button Under Celluloid - Black Cat - Looking At The Moon BbbVintage Button Lot - Bulk Sewing Supplies 12 Lbs Pounds Estate Mix - Box 12015 Ooak Janie Comito Pretty Rosy Pin Cushion ~with Vintage Satsuma Button Antique Gay 90s Button Faceted Amethyst Color Glass Jewel Fancy Flower BorderAntique Brass Cup Button W/owl HeadColorfull Lot Of Vintage Buttons Free Shipping Fantastic Realistic Carved Olive Green Bakelite "crown" Button