Buttons: Where Did They Come From?
by Marjorie Dorfman
Who were the very first people to wear buttons and where did they get the idea in the first place? How did these clothes fasteners become objets dart? Learn all about it, even though you may not be the first on your block to do so.
The earliest recorded use of buttons dates back to the Bronze Age when they were used as ornamentation for belts and other metal objects. Seashells were shaped into circles or triangles and sewn onto garments. Clothing had barely progressed beyond animal skins and in this primitive time thorn, sinew and bone stickpins held clothing edges together. With the coming of metals, came metal pins, although clothing wearers were still light years away from establishing a code of formal attire. (People were far too preoccupied with either finding or becoming dinner.) The Greeks and Romans were thought to be the first to have worn actual buttons to fasten clothes, fixing loops to the fringes of garments so that buttons could be passed through them. Such advanced technology was far beyond the inhabitants of Dark Age Europe who favored simple, loose fitting robes and swathes of cloth. Buckles, brooches belts and pins were sufficient for these fashions.
Buttons did not become "necessary fasteners" until the Middle Ages when tighter clothing that molded closely to the body came into vogue among the rich, powerful and cellulite-free. Achieving this look required many pins, which had a tendency to fall out or get misplaced, while repeated pinning damaged the fine, delicate fabrics that had come into favor. Buttonholes cut into the fabric and then reinforced with stitched edges, just like today, began to appear on clothing from the 13th and 14th centuries.
Buttons were a luxury and became status symbols. Clothing for the rich was designed with long rows of close-set buttons on every surface. Men competed to see who could have the best, the largest or the most intricate buttons. (Have things really changed all that much?) Those designed for the nobility were usually made of silver and gold. Buttons became objets dart, many with exquisite paintings on them. They were carved, inlaid, stamped and covered. Royal courts, having little else to do with treasury money, employed craftsmen just to make buttons. (No reason to start feeding the poor, or letting them even eat cake, was there?) Outdoing most of the royalty of his day, Francis I (1494-1547) had 13,600 gold buttons sewn onto a single costume! The black velvet suit was designed for his meeting with Henry VIII who arrived just as button-adorned as his colleague.
Beginning around the 15th century buttons were sewn onto the right-hand side of mens garments and the left side of womens. This is because buttons were primarily owned by the rich and done up by servants. Maids dressed wealthy women and so dressmakers put the buttons on the maids right. Since most people are right handed, it is easier to push buttons on the right through holes than on the left. And thats where womens buttons have remained ever since. In the 1600s diamond buttons came into fashion and in 1625 The First Duke of Buckingham had a suit and cloak covered with them.
In the 1700s metal buttons were used and a special covering was created for them by winding metal threads around the body of the button in intricate patterns. Towards the end of the century, fashion tended towards bigger buttons and a return to metallic varieties, especially crucible steel for mens fashions. Richly embroidered buttons were made over wooden molds and fastened at the back with criss-crossed coarse threads. They were popular for mens coats and waistcoats. Miniature scenes were painted on ivory and glass and some buttons were inlaid or engraved with silver. (It is not known whether these artists were the ancestors of those who figured out how to squeeze those tiny ships into those even tinier bottles. Perhaps the secret is lost forever.)
The French Court was notorious for its button displays, which was later supplanted by the severed heads of its enemies during The Reign of Terror. Louis XIV (1638-1715) had silver-covered bone buttons sewn onto the uniforms of his dutiful soldiers. In one year he spent $600,000 on his buttons and a mere $5 million on them during his lifetime. Later, in the royal court of Louis XVI, (1754-1793) courtiers used buttons to outdo each other by creating them in unique gold patterns and inlaying them with a myriad of precious jewels. (Both Harry Winston and Liberace would have felt right at home in the kings court.)
Brass buttons became the rage of colonial America and were used on everything, both functional and ornamental. In 1750, a German immigrant named Caspar Wistar, made brass buttons in Philadelphia that were guaranteed for seven years. He later opened the first successful glass making factory in the American colonies. In 1775 the metal buttons worn on the revolutionary war uniforms were actually imported from France. Henry Silas and Samuel Grilley were pioneer metalworkers in Waterbury Connecticut. In 1790 they began to manufacture tin and pewter buttons from sheet brass imported from England. The production of hand made glass buttons began at the end of the 18th century as well, but its major growth occurred during the second half of the nineteenth century.
In 1802 the earliest known machine covered button was made by B. Sanders of Birmingham England. It had a metal shank, but was shortly replaced by a piece of tufted canvas through which the button could be sewn onto the garment. Thus was created the flexible shank button. In that same year, Abel Porter and Company a New England company began to make metal buttons as imported ones were scarce and expensive. At first they were cast of soft metal, but the wire thread quickly wore through the soft metal eye. The problem was eliminated when Porter cast brass wire loops in the buttons. The firm later became Scovil Manufacturing Company, which became famous for making a set of solid gold buttons bearing the profile of George Washington in relief presented to the Marquis de Lafayette during his American visit in 1824.
During The War of 1812, Aaron Benedict of Waterbury, Connecticut, (no relation to either the eggs that share his name or Benedict Arnold who would have been better off if he had been connected with eggs), bought every brass pot and pan he could find and rolled buttons in his own private mill. One can only wonder what today he might have been inclined to roll in the privacy of his own mill, but the button world gives credit where credit is due. The company of Benedict and Coe manufactured their own brass and nickel silver and they produced horn and ivory buttons as well as gilt (copper) buttons. By the 1820s button manufacturing and brass production were rapidly expanding. The button companies were able to produce more brass than they needed, and began to sell rolled brass on the open market. By 1829, Benedict was also attempting to roll the brass that he consumed in button making.
In 1840 porcelain buttons were invented and in that same decade hard rubber buttons were introduced, but they didnt work very well. In 1869 celluloid, the very first plastic, made its button debut, replacing ivory. Later, many Art Nouveau and Art Deco buttons would be made of this synthetic substance. Buttons were so expensive at one time that they would be taken from old garments and used on newer ones. Covered buttons remain available today. They are a piece of fabric that can be tucked around the "teeth "of the back and the metal button snaps together. They allow garment producers to make buttons that match the fabric they are using. Button covers are also available. They are placed over an ordinary button to "dress up" a garment.
Serious collecting began in the 1930s. If you are one or would like to become one, a good web site to find information about old buttons is ButtonImages.com. No matter what your taste, theres a button somewhere for you in the world and many places to find them. Perhaps you are into Velcro buttons, used when age makes fingers useless or when ripping a garment off quickly without tearing it is desired. Or maybe you are more the iridescent or ivory type. Cheer up! Even if you cant find some buttons you like for your ensemble, you can always entertain yourself with the game "button, button, whos got the button?"
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