Button-like objects of stone, glass, bone, ceramic, and gold have been found at archaeological sites dating as early as 2000 b.c.e., but evidence suggests that these objects were used as decoration on cloth or strung like beads. Nevertheless, they have the familiar holes through which to pass a thread, which gives them the appearance of the button currently known as a fastener.
Buttons can be divided into two types according to the way they are attached to a garment. Shank buttons have a pierced knob or shaft on the back through which passes the sewing thread. The majority of buttons are this type. The shank can be a separate piece that is attached to the button or part of the button material itself, as in a molded button. Pierced buttons have a hole from front to back of the button so that the thread used to attach the button is visible on the face.
Almost every material that has been used in the fine and decorative arts has been used historically in the production of buttons. Buttons exist in a variety of materials: metals (precious or otherwise), gemstones, ivory, horn, wood, bone, mother-of-pearl, glass, porcelain, paper, and silk. In the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, celluloid and other artificial materials have been used to imitate natural materials.
The precursor to the button fastener was the fibula, a brooch or pin used to hold two pieces of clothing on the shoulder or chest. The button began to replace the fibula at least by the early Middle Ages, if not sooner.
Buttons functioned as primary fastenings for men's dress earlier than for women's. This may be due to the fact that the women's, from the late Middle Ages into the twentieth century, was required to be tight and smoothly fitted. Lacings and hooks are better suited to providing the strong hold and smooth appearance necessary for tight-fitting garments.
One of the earliest extant pieces of clothing to show the use of buttons as fastenings is the pourpoint of Charles of Blois (c. 1319–1364). This new outer garment was fitted in the body and sleeves, with buttons used to close the front and the sleeves from the elbow. At this point, however, men's lower garments (hose, and, later, breeches) were still fastened to their upper garments, or to an interior belt, by points (laces of ribbon or cord decorated with metal tips). These points with metal tips were often attached as purely decorative pieces to both male and female apparel.
There are records of buttons in documents relating to nobility during the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance. For example, Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy (1396–1497) ordered Venetian glass buttons decorated with pearls, and Francis I of France (1494–1547) is said to have ordered a set of black enamel buttons mounted on gold from a Parisian goldsmith. These were obviously special buttons of the same quality as contemporary jewelry. Buttons of any material were generally round in shape and made of decorated metal or covered with needlework in silk or metal threads on a wooden core. The ball-shaped toggle button is probably the type of button that replaced the fibula as a fastening for cloaks, capes, and other outer garments. A sixteenth-century example exists in Nuremberg hallmarked silver, attached to a thin bar by a flexible chain link.
The Eighteenth Century
The eighteenth century is considered the Golden Age of buttons by collectors, as the variety of styles, as well as the physical size of buttons increase dramatically. Men's coats required buttons at the front opening, sleeves, pockets, and back vents. Waistcoats and breeches were also fastened with buttons. The size of the button grows and the shape generally flattens during the course of the century, ending in the flat disk as large as 1.38 inch (3.5 cm) in diameter. The value of decorations on a man's ensemble during this period, composed of metal thread embroidery and jeweled buttons, could account for as much as 80 percent of the cost of the suit of clothes. Thus, luxurious buttons became an increasingly essential part of the expression of status in upper-class men's dress. In Denis Diderot's Encyclopédie (c. 1746) the creativity of button-makers is exalted, though for moralists costly buttons became one sign of excess in fashion.
The newly fashionable paste jewels (imitation gemstones) appeared in the 1730s and were used to create some of the most highly prized buttons of the nineteenth century. Georges Frédéric Strass, a Parisian jeweler, perfected techniques of making these glass jewels.
As the button evolved from a ball to a flat disk, another notable change in decorative technique was the use of the button as a palette for painting. Representational images became immensely popular in the second half of the eighteenth century and are related to the miniature portraits that were worn as pendants or pins during the period. Portraits and subjects like rococo genre scenes, historical events, tourist views, and architectural monuments were produced. An extraordinary set of French
portrait miniature buttons was made about 1790 and included portraits of personalities from the French Revolutionary period; each portrait was set in silver with paste-diamond border and the name of the sitter engraved on the back. Artists of note participated in the production of portrait buttons; Jean-Baptiste Isabey (1767–1855), a miniature painter and pupil of Jacques-Louis David, records that he painted decorative buttons at the beginning of his career.
By the second half of the eighteenth century, button making in Europe fell into two categories: French button production remained a craft tradition allied with other high-quality decorative arts, while the English button industry developed mass-production techniques. Probably the most influential of the new English technologies was the development of cut-steel buttons and accessories by the steel manufacturer Matthew Bolton (1728–1809) of Birmingham in the 1760s. Bolton's cut-steel or faceted
steel buttons were one of the most prevalent styles of the last three decades of the eighteenth century. The polished and faceted surface was created to imitate that of faceted gems or glass and the effect was quite successful.
The ceramic manufacturer Josiah Wedgwood began producing buttons made of his popular jasperware in 1773 as part of a collaboration with Matthew Bolton, who created cut-steel settings for the ceramic buttons. Jasper-ware ceramics, with their neoclassical motifs derived from cameos, had become the trademark product of the Wedg-wood factory and the buttons were available in five colors and a variety of shapes. Another innovation in the ceramic industry, that of transfer printing, created a new type of ceramic button decorated with designs derived from copperplate engravings. At the end of the eighteenth century, buttons made from mother-of-pearl began to rival in popularity those of steel.
The eighteenth-century Enlightenment sensibility manifested itself in several unique types of buttons. Faithfully depicted insects and animals became the subject of button sets, as did buttons created from semiprecious materials such as agate, in which the natural patterns of the stones were the only decoration. The highlight of this natural history trend is probably the so-called Habitat buttons, which contain actual specimens of insects, plants, or pieces of minerals encased under glass domes.
Nineteenth and Twentieth Century
The standardization of military uniforms in eighteenth-century Europe led to the production of specialized buttons that continues to be a major portion of the button industry today. The number of buttons required for a soldier's coat could be as many as twenty to thirty. Each country, region, and specialization within the armed services required their own individual designs. Uniform buttons carried over into civilian life, as modern businesses, such as airlines, and local law enforcement agencies required special buttons for their uniforms.
Beginning in the early nineteenth century men's dress became much plainer and less ostentatious. Portraits by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780–1867) show men's fashion in the first half of the nineteenth century with plain gold metal or fabric buttons of the same color as the garment on which they are sewn. Women's bodices and outerwear became the outlet for the display of decorative buttons by the mid-nineteenth century. Women's buttons followed trends in jewelry: colored enamel, porcelain, pearl, silver, and jewels were used. Jet and black glass, introduced during Queen Victoria's mourning for Prince Albert, remained popular to the end of the century.
The nineteenth-century button industry continued along the two lines that had been established in the eighteenth century; industrial progress continued concurrently with handcraft techniques, which generally followed the historical revival styles of nineteenth-century decorative arts.
In 1812, Aaron Benedict established a metal button-making factory in Waterbury, Connecticut, to supply metal buttons for the military. Until that time many metal buttons were still coming from England, but the War of 1812 brought trade between the United States and Britain to a halt. As of 2003, Benedict's company, which became known as Waterbury Buttons, had been in business for 191 years. It is the oldest and largest producer of stamped metal buttons in the United States. Statistics from 1996 show that they produced 100 million buttons—about one-half for fashion trade and the remainder for military and commercial clients. Metal remains the main type of mass-produced button because the material lends itself to mass-production techniques.
The French firm Albert Parent et Cie, founded in 1825, exemplifies the brilliance of French manufacturers who combined mass-production techniques with the hand-finished details to produce luxury buttons in the manner of the eighteenth century. The company left an archive of sample books showing over 80,000 examples of buttons in every available technique of the time.
While more buttons were mass-produced in the nineteenth century that did not mean that fewer materials were employed in the creation of buttons. Natural materials like horn and shells, which had been used for centuries, were rediscovered as mass-produced items. New materials such as celluloid, the first plastic, were used as early as the 1870s to imitate other materials.
Representational picture buttons, first introduced in the late eighteenth century, reached their peak between 1870 and 1914. The nineteenth-century scenes were generally mass-produced stamped metal designs depicting any motif imaginable, but contemporary marvels like the Eiffel Tower were especially popular.
The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw more and more men and women wearing suits with linen or cotton shirts underneath, the new uniform for the emerging white-collar working class. Both suit jackets and shirts required buttons as fastenings and they created the need for large numbers of inexpensive buttons. Thus, the four-holed pierced button was introduced to both men's and women's fashions. However, fine jewelry quality buttons were still produced by some of the best-known retailers of the day such as Cartier, Liberty's of London, and Georg Jensen.
Buttons received competition in the form of the new zipper that was patented in 1903 but did not come into general use until the 1930s. The zipper was considered a novelty at first and played a prominent role as decoration in the designs of top designers.
Bakelite was invented in 1907 and by the 1930s had replaced almost all other synthetics for accessories. Durable and versatile, Bakelite was the medium for some of the most extravagant buttons of the twentieth century, but other plastics eventually replaced it. Three-dimensional accessories, such as fruit shapes, were created in the 1930s and 1940s when small accessories like buttons were especially popular. The designer Elsa Schiaparelli (1890–1973), who was allied with surrealist artists in the 1930s, is notable for her use of extraordinary custom-made buttons.
Plastics replaced most inexpensive glass and pearl buttons by the 1960s. That coupled with the fact that natural materials such as ivory and tortoiseshell are now banned in the United States and other countries has led to the dominance of plastic buttons made to imitate these materials. Mother-of-pearl is still used but in much smaller quantities than in the past. American-made pearl buttons can cost from twenty-five cents to three dollars apiece, as some of the work must still be done by hand and the best shells are imported from the Pacific Ocean coastlines.
The use of stretch fabrics and increasingly informal dressing have led to a decrease in the demand for button fasteners. They have become a symbol of nostalgia and anachronistic tradition, as evidenced by retro button-fly jeans introduced by denim manufacturers in the 1990s and the continued use of rows of tiny buttons on the back of bridal gowns.
Buttons have become extremely collectible. The National Button Society exists for collectors and publishes a quarterly bulletin and holds an annual meeting and show. There are similar societies in Britain and Australia and elsewhere in the world. Military buttons represent a specialty among collectors, as the challenge of identifying the insignias of segments of the armed services adds to the interest of these items.
Boucher, Francois. 20,000. Years of Fashion: The History of Costume and Personal Adornment. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1987.
Epstein, Diana, and Millicent Safro. Buttons. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1991.
Houart, Victor. Buttons: A Collector's Guide. London: Souvenir Press Ltd., 1977.
Pearsall, Susan. "In Waterbury, Buttons Are Serious Business." New York Times, 3 August 1997.
Roche, Daniel. The Culture of Clothing: Dress and Fashion in the Ancient Régime. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
The earliest buttons date to prehistoric times, and in spite of millennia of change in fashion and manufacturing techniques, the button has endured as the most common fabric fastener. Though buttons were used for thousands of years, the buttonhole was not invented until sometime in the 13th century. The buttonhole is thought to have been brought to Europe from the Middle East by knights returning from the Crusades, and its advent led to a surge in button use. Buttons became a staple of men's fashion in the Renaissance, when jackets often featured rows of buttons from chin to waist, sleeves were tightly buttoned from elbow to wrist, and trousers too sported buttons at the waist, knee, or thigh. Guilds of buttonmakers were in existence in Paris in the 13th century, where buttons were made out of a variety of materials including wood, bone, brass, pewter, gold, and silver.
By the 18th century, the button industry flourished all across Europe, and artisans developed many different techniques for making them. The court of Louis XIV of France set the fashion for intricate buttons of precious metals and jewels and fabric buttons of embroidered cloth. English manufacturers invented steel buttons, and glass or glass and metal buttons were popular in France. Many artists famous in other trades also lent their skills to the button industry. The French painter Antoine Watteau made buttons, and some of the leading names in fine china such as Wedgwood, Limoges, and Staffordshire are also associated with fine buttons.
By the late 18th century, buttons began to be made in factories. Metal buttons were punched out by dies, and die-makers were prohibited from emigrating from England, so that they would not take their trade secrets abroad. Nevertheless, the technology spread, and buttons began to be mass-produced in metal, glass, and other materials. Extravagant buttons were still popular elements of 19th-century fashion. Diemakers turned out complex designs using scenes from plays, novels, and nursery rhymes, and Wagner operas and the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan were routinely commemorated with buttons depicting scenes and characters.
By the early 20th century, the prevailing style was much simpler, reflecting the more sedate look of the growing white-collar class. Inexpensive matched shirt buttons for men and women were available in five-and-dime stores around 1910. Plastic buttons became widely available in the 1930s, though most typical shirt buttons were still made of sea shells or other natural materials. World War II brought many advances in plastic technology. Acrylic buttons were actually made from material left over from the manufacture of bomber gun turrets. The button industry converted almost entirely to plastic after the war. Plastic buttons could be made by a variety of methods. They could be mold cast, where plastic slugs cut from a long rod are placed in a two-part mold. The mold is closed, and heat and pressure applied to finish the button. Another process is injection molding. In this method, melted plastic is forced into a mold with a button-shaped cavity. Outlined below is the most common process for making plastic buttons: die cutting from cylinder-cast polyester.
Buttons are still made from natural products, but these require more work by hand than do plastic buttons, and some formerly common button materials are no longer widely available. For instance whale ivory, elephant ivory, or tortoiseshell buttons cannot be made in the U.S. because of laws enacted to protect endangered animals. Horn buttons are made from cow and buffalo hooves and horns, but button aficionados claim that modern horn is of poor quality and color because the animals graze on low-quality grass. Antique horn buttons are often streaked and come in a variety of colors, whereas modern horn is a duller light or dark brown. Horn buttons are still an element of the best quality men's fashion, but they cost as much as a dollar a piece, compared to the half a cent price of a standard button. Mother-of-pearl buttons, derived from sea shells, are still prized for their luster. But after World War II, the divers in the South Pacific islands who provided most of the mother-of-pearls began to charge much more for their dangerous labor, and the price of the material rose drastically. Glass buttons, which were widely imported from Germany in the middle of this century, are now much less common as well. The glass buttons were factory made, but they required a lot of hand work under unpleasantly hot conditions, and this industry too dwindled after World War II.
The common material for buttons is polyester, which is a special kind of plastic with properties that make it suitable for buttons. A variety of chemical dyes are added to the polyester to make different colors. To make buttons with the pearlescent sheen of shell buttons, red carbonate is added to the polyester. Black buttons are made with the addition of carbon black, and white buttons are made with titanium. The button making process also requires a chemical catalyst that hardens the polyester, and wax.
Mixing the polyester
- 1 Polyester arrives at a button factory in liquid form. At the start of the manufacturing process, polyester is drained from its storage tank and measured into a stainless steel kettle. Then dye is added, if the buttons are to be any color other than the natural translucence of the polyester. After the dye is mixed in, the liquid polyester is poured into a 3-gallon (11 l) metal beaker. The catalyst and liquid wax are added.
Pouring into the cylinder
- 2 The mixture of polyester, catalyst, and wax is then poured into a large rotating metal cylinder. The cylinders are made of steel and lined with chrome, and are typically 2 feet (61 cm) long and 4 feet (122 cm) in diameter. The cylinders lie on their sides on rollers which rotate the drums at 250 rpm. The polyester solution is slowly poured into the rotating interior of the cylinder, and the centrifugal force of the rotation causes the solution to spread, lining the drum with an even sheet. A greater amount of polyester is used for thicker buttons, and less for thinner ones. A 2-inch (5 cm) lip around the ends of the cylinder prevents the polyester from leaking out.
Hardening the sheet
- 3 As the polyester rotates in the cylinder, it begins to interact with the chemical catalyst and harden. The wax rises to the top of the sheet, and also sinks to the bottom, so that the hardening polyester is eventually held between two layers of wax. This process is completed after 20 minutes of rotation. The resulting polyester sheet has changed from its liquid state to a crumbly solid likened to the consistency of stale cheese.
Cutting the sheet
- 4 When the sheet has reached the proper hardness, the drum is stopped and the sheet is cut. Then it is rolled out of the cylinder onto a wooden tube. The wax makes it easy to remove from the drum, but the material is still very delicate. The top layer of wax is then peeled off, and the sheet is transferred to a blanking machine.
Cutting the blanks
- 5 The blanking machine moves the polyester sheet along on a conveyor belt. As the sheet passes along the belt, circular steel cutting dies descend and punch out button-sized circles, called blanks. Buttons come in standard sizes, and different diameter dies can be loaded into the blanking machine, depending on the size needed. After the blanks are cut, they fall into a chute, and the punched out sheet of polyester rolls beneath the chute. Cutting the blanks from the sheet takes from two to four minutes, depending on the size of the buttons being made.
Cooling the blanks
- 6 The blanks at this stage are hot, because the polyester is still reacting with the catalyst, releasing heat. So at this point the blanks are removed from the chute and poured into a nylon bag. The bag is then lowered into a tank of salt water, which is heated to 230°F (110°C). The blanks float in the salt water for 15 minutes. The water slowly cools, and the polyester blanks harden. Next, the nylon bag is transferred to a cold water tank, and the blanks reach their final state of hardness. After the hot and cold baths, the blanks are dried in a centrifugal drying machine, which spins them in a wire mesh basket.
Styling the blanks
- 7 The blanks are now ready to be cut into their finished button shape. The exact design of the button can be specified by a clothing manufacturer, and the button maker must make a steel cutting tool according to the design he is given. A different cutting tool is needed, for example, to make a beveled edge or a flat one, or to make a slightly concave button. When the appropriate cutting tool is in place, the buttons are poured into a hopper at the top of the cutting machine. The blanks fall into a holder where they are clamped tightly and moved toward the cutting tool. The spinning blade advances and cuts the button, then retracts. Next, the button moves beneath a set of drills, which create the holes. Like the cutting tool, the drills must be designed to conform to the clothing manufacturer's specifications. The design specifies not only two holes or four holes, but the diameter of the holes and the distance between them as well. After the buttons pass beneath the drill, they are sucked by vacuum out of the holder and into a box beneath the machine. Hundreds of buttons a minute can be made this way, though the number varies according to the size of the button and the complexity of the design.
Finishing the buttons
- 8 After the buttons are cut and drilled, they have rough or sharp edges, scratches, and tool marks. They are placed into hexagonal tumbling drums, which contain water, an abrasive material, and a foaming agent. The drums spin for up to 24 hours. The buttons bounce around in the drum until they are smooth and shiny. After tumbling, the buttons are washed and dried.
After the buttons are completely finished, they are placed on a conveyor belt and visually inspected for defects. The inspector must check each button for flaws and remove any cracked or mis-cut ones. The buttons are now ready for packaging and sale.
The 20th century has seen entirely new clothing fasteners such as the zipper and velcro, and we can now manufacture stretchy fabrics that require no fasteners at all. Nevertheless, the button does not seem in danger of fading away. It is both utilitarian and fashionable, and will likely long be with us. However, button technology is not entirely staid. One recent development is a button of superior strength, a ceramic button made of zirconium oxide. Beer magnate Joseph Coors Jr. decided in 1989 that there was a need for an indestructible button, and he used a ceramics research unit at the Adolph Coors Company to develop this new product. The resulting Diamond Z button debuted in 1993. It is said to be harder than steel, with 2.5 times steel's flexing strength. These men's shirt buttons are fired at 3200°F (1760°C), then polished and coated with an ivory-like finish. The proof of the Diamond Z's indestructibility is a "drop test" where a heavy pointed rod falls down a long tube onto the button. The button can withstand this rigorous ordeal as well as the everyday wear and tear of repeated washing and ironing. The Diamond Z button is, however, quite expensive to make compared to the ordinary polyester button, and for that reason it is not likely to displace the existing technology.
Where To Learn More
Epstein, Diana and Millicent Safro. Buttons. Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1991.
Fink, Nancy and Maryalice Ditzler. Buttons: The Collector's Guide to Selecting, Restoring and Enjoying New and Vintage Buttons. Running Press, 1993.
Berendt, John. "The Button." Esquire, September 1989, p. 72.
Coy, Peter. "Coors: From Beer to Superstrong Buttons." Business Week, July 12, 1993, p. 149.
but·ton / ˈbətn/ • n. a small disk or knob sewn on to a garment, either to fasten it by being pushed through a slit made for the purpose, or for decoration: a blouse with five buttons in front [as adj.] button thread. ∎ a knob on a piece of electrical or electronic equipment that is pressed to operate it. ∎ a badge bearing a design or slogan and pinned to the clothing. ∎ a small, round object resembling a button: chocolate buttons. ∎ Fencing a knob fitted to the point of a foil to make it harmless.• v. [tr.] fasten (clothing) with buttons: he buttoned up his jacket. ∎ [intr.] (of a garment) be fastened with buttons: a dress that buttons down the front. ∎ (button it) [often in imper.] inf. stop talking.PHRASES: button one's lip inf. stop or refrain from talking.on the button inf. punctually: it was nearly visiting hours and she would arrive on the button. ∎ exactly right: his prediction was right on the button in terms of actual rainfall.push (or press) someone's buttons inf. arouse or provoke a reaction in someone: stay cool and don't allow them to push your buttons.PHRASAL VERBS: button something up1. inf. complete or conclude something satisfactorily: trying to button up a deal.2. [often as adj.] (buttoned up) repress or contain something: it was repressive enough to keep public opinion buttoned up.DERIVATIVES: but·ton·less adj.but·toned adj. [in comb.] a gold-buttoned blazer.
1. An area on a screen that when activated by means of a pointing device or predetermined key sequence causes an action to be initiated. Buttons can be any shape or size and need not be visible. The commonest form is a small rectangular area shaded to give the appearance of protruding slightly from the screen and labeled with text that indicates its function (“close”, “ok”, “print”, etc.) or with an icon. When the button is activated or “pressed”, its appearance will normally change so that it appears recessed. A horizontal or vertical row of buttons is called a button bar.
2. On a mouse (or similar device), a switch that a user presses to initiate a specific function (see click).