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 Georgian Wooden Steel Buttohnole Button Hole Chisel C1800Antique "devil Roped Alligator" French Metal Vintage Picture Button-nouveau DecoAntique Meiji Satsuma Button Colorful Detailed Peacock W/ Gold Accents - 15/16"Wow! Pair Of Snapette Buttons Pewter Eskimo And Bear On Caesin - Fred Gray BmAntique"the Intruder"great Dane Dog & Cat~french Metal Vintage Picture ButtonAntique French Enamel Button Detailed Strolling Woman W/ Fan Pictorial - 1"Amazing Lot Of Antique~ Vtg Buttons Metal Picture, Victorian Black Glass, EnamelVintage Satsuma Button Perched Owl In Maple Tree W/ Gold Accents 1 & 1/16"Huge 2" Antique Bur Wood 2 Humped Camel ButtonStriking Antique~ Vtg Victorian Glass Charmsting Button Brass Set Cobalt BallGreen Glass Leaf With White Lily Of Valley Paperweight Button - Mary GaumondVtg 100% T+ Bakelite Button Charms Swans Angels Monkey Scotties Rabbit FlowersVintage Lot Mixed Sewing Buttons 2 Pounds Crafters Lot Rhinestones42 Antique Colorful Dimi Glass Buttons - Peacock Eye, Paperweights, Overlays +++*x46 British Georgian Victorian C1800s Heraldic Crest Livery Buttons* DetectingHand Painted Vegetable Ivory Buttons -pictures Of South American Scenes Org CardVintage Antique Satsuma Button With Crane Flowers & Gold Accents MarkedSet Of 4 Antique American Engraved Colonial Coin Silver Buttons & Links C 1780Large Antique Hunt Button With Hounds And FoxAntique Pinkerton Railroad Detective Shirt Cufflink Button Tiffany & Co N.y. YqzExquisite Antique~ Vtg Precision Inlay Crystal Clear Glass Button W/ Pink RoseRare Antique Jacksonian Button, Dog W/ Basket In MouthSet Of 6 Vintage Art Ceramic Buttons Toshikane China Tokyo Japan TrademarkHuge 40 Lbs Mixed Antique Vintage Button Lot, Glass, Metal, Plastics, Fancy, MopLarge Lot 209 Cards Over 550 Buttons Lansing Streamline Costumakers Vintage Red, White And Blue Stars And Stripes Glass Paperweight Button - Mary GaumondStunning Old Petit Point Floral Fabric Button Marked Made In Austria J50Buttons Outstanding Mix Of Vintage & New Glass Metal Rhinestione M9*x77 Uk Detecting Find Post Medieval 1600s Upwards Mixed Decorative Buttons*Set 9 Antique Enamel 3/8" Buttons Ap & C Paris France Pink Florals BlueAntique Calico China ButtonsAntique Silver Button W/turquoise & Cobalt Blue Basse-taille Enameled "madonna"Large Antique Lithograph Button, Young WomanUnusual Antique Carved Pearl Beetle / Cicada Button J14Amazing Salesman Sample Book Of Antique Molded & Dyed Horn Buttons Great DetailLarge Antique Hunt Button With Greyhound & HareVintage Butterscotch Bakelite Buttons Inlaid Matching Set Of 31 Lb Antique Vintage Button Lot/huge Collection Old Plastics Bakelite GlassVtg-50's-butterick Sewing Pattern 7758-playsuit-button On Circle Skirt-jacket-ffRealistic "cat W/bow"~french Metal-antique Vintage Picture Button-nouveau DecoRealistic Faux Tortise Umbrella Snapette Button - Deeply Carved Design W PaintAntique Meiji Satsuma Button Detailed Bird & Flowers W/ Scallop Border 1 & 1/4"*mint* Civil War Cuff Goodyear's Patent Hard Rubber Cuff Ball Button 3-dayLg. Lot Of Victorian To Vintage Buttons Bakelite Pearl Metal China Celluloid ++Antique Green Foil Design Under Glass Button W/ Dots On Top Of Glass J2Large French Antique Hunt Button With Running Hare. C.t. Paris*loracwin* Fantastic Lot 20 Bronze Buttons Cufflinks Varied Decor , 17th CentVintage South Dorset Hunt Brass Buttons - By Budden WimborneMarvelous X Large Antique Gay 90's Openwork Metal Button W/ Cobalt Glass StoneCornflower Blue Enamel Button - Cut Steel Border - 1 1/8"Large Lot Of Antique/vintage Buttons -- Over 10 PoundsRare Antique Victorian Waistcoat Cameo Button #2429Vintage Antique Rhinestone Buttons Matching Singles Clear Colored Glass LotStunning!! "egyptian Princess" French Metal Vintage Antique Picture ButtonAntique Metal Button Rabbit Learning Its Abc's - 9/16"#2a Big Lot 42 Sq. Vint Plastic Bakelite Celluloid Metals Horn Goodyear ButtonsExquisite Antique 19th Century Cobalt Blue Art Glass Button W/gilt Brass OverlaySatsuma Buttons *************** Collection Of 12 *****************Large Lot Of Plant Life Buttons Antique And Vintage Buttons 2 PicturesHuge 2-color Bakelite & Yellow Daisy Flower 1 15/16" Vibrant