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The History of Buttons

by Anne Blaine on 2023-11-06T08:00:00-07:00 | 0 Comments

Upon discovering that November 16th is National Button Day, I went down a deep, deep rabbit hole (buttonhole?) about the history of buttons. Buckle your seat belts folks, this is one wild ride! 

The earliest object that might have been used as a button dates back to 7000 BCE and was excavated from a burial site in the Indus Valley in present day Pakistan. It has a hole drilled in it and it is made of shell. Evidence from other excavated sites in the same region suggests that carved and decorated disks made out of bone, ivory, clay, and stone with holes in the center or bones across the back (suggesting that they were sewn onto fabric) date back to 4000-5000 BCE. In the Netherlands, a form of knotted button and fabric loop appeared around 1400 BCE. In China, the earliest recorded button dates back to 1000 BCE during the Zhou Dynasty and is a knot-and-loop button (more on different button types later). This style of button appears to have traveled west along the Silk Road with other innovations such as paper and made its way to Europe via. the Mediterranean during the Crusades which started in the late 11th century. 

Buttons were not always used as buttons as we know them today. Have I confused you yet? In their early existence, buttons were commonly used as commodities for trade.  However, as time progressed they began being used for decoration and then, as they fell into their traditional use, they became a sign of social rank and wealth. This evolution probably took place around the Renaissance with the invention of the buttonhole. If a person could afford enough cloth that required a button, they were probably well-off financially. Buttons with intricate, unique designs, or that were made of precious stones or metal, indicated that the wearer had enough money to afford to commission the pieces from a button maker or a jeweler and then pay a seamstress or tailor to affix them to their garments. The wearer of a button adorned garment may have required assistance getting into and out of their clothing and would have had to have a certain amount of wealth to afford this type of assistance. Because buttons signified wealth and were of significant value, they were often cut off old and discarded garments and sewn to new items. Buttons eventually became more accessible and commonplace as a result of the Industrial Revolution during which mechanization allowed button production to increase. 

Outside of being traded, used for decoration, and fastening clothing, buttons have had some nefarious uses over the years. They have been used to hide secret information, codes (Morse code) or insignia, compases, conceal contraband (poison! and drugs!) and gems, and even melted down and turned into bullets. Some buttons portray scenes of war or comics and black buttons were widely used to signify grief in Queen Victoria’s decades of suffering after Prince Albert’s death. 

Think about a world before the button for a moment. Clothing would have consisted mostly of drapery and would have been fastened with laces, stitches, or ties. Sounds inconvenient and very *flowy* to me. When buttons entered the scene as fasteners it allowed clothing to be worn more closely to the body and for fashions to evolve, diversify, and become more efficient. Coats were warmer, dresses hugged bodies more tightly, and new styles emerged. Before I ramble on too much about buttons, I think it’s worth noting that many folks who are interested in buttons believe that they can teach us about the social, political, and militaristic histories of the world. I’ve already explained how buttons indicated social status and how they spread with the changing political climate of the world. So, let’s consider the military aspect. Buttons have adorned military uniforms since their inception as clothes fasteners. These buttons often had distinct insignia and decoration that signified nation, rank, unit, or achievements. The materials that they were made of were significant and often reflected innovations and available materials of the time. Where buttons, and what type of buttons, of fallen soldiers were found helped historians to trace the paths of wars throughout lands.  

To conclude, I wanted to just touch on the variety of types of buttons that are out there. To my surprise there are many different types of buttons, some I have seen on various articles of clothing throughout my life while others were new to me. 

2-hole and 4-hole flat buttons - much like their names describe, these are flat buttons with two or four holes punched in the middle. Most commonly they are round, disk-shaped, but sometimes they can be square or other shapes. They can be made out of a number of different materials including, but not limited to, horn, metal, plastic, wood, shells. These types of buttons are typically used for light to medium weight fabrics, everyday clothing, and pillow cases and bedding. 2-hole and 4-hole buttons differ in that the 4-hole button can be more securely sewn to fabric because of the additional two holes 

Shank buttons - flat or domed buttons with a small rectangular or round ‘shank’ attached to the back side with a hole in it. This hole is used to sew the button in place on fabric. The ‘shank’ allows for space between the button and the fabric and doen’t need to interrupt the surface of the button allowing for intricate designs and patterns. Usually this type of button is made of metal, leather, crystal, fabric, or glass. Typically this type of button is used on outerwear, evening or formal wear, and upholstery. 

Stud buttons - que the stud muffin pun here… crickets… anyways, this is a very unique type of button which is not sewn on and is composed of two parts, a front and a back. Instead of being sewn on, they are affixed to the fabric by using the back to poke a hole in the fabric and pressing the top onto the back. This process usually requires a press or kit. These are most commonly made out of metal and seen on jeans and workwear because they are very sturdy. 

Toggle buttons - you’ve probably seen this type of button but never heard it named. Used primarily on coats, bags, and heavier fabrics, toggles have long, thin cylindrical shapes with rounded pointy ends. The toggle will have two holes through its center which are used to sew them onto fabric. They are affixed to the fabric using a leather loop and then fastened with another leather loop. Traditionally, toggles were made of wood, but any other sturdy material will suffice. 

Other button types are generally qualified by their material type. There are buttons made of: 
-mother of pearl 
-horn or bone 
-corozo- made using corozo nuts which come from tagua trees - they have a natural grain pattern
-ceramic or porcelain 
-fabric covered buttons
-Chinese knot

If you’re as interested in buttons as I have found myself to be, here’s some suggested further reading: 
-"Old Buttons" by by Sylvia Llewelyn, a book of rare and artful buttons around the world
-"The Big Book of Buttons," by Elizabeth Hughes and Marion Lester



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