In 1869 John Wesley Hyatt discovered celluloid and changed the world. He did not realize the importance that his discovery would make on the world of button manufacture. At first, the buttons were created to imitate elephant ivory and the early buttons are very often confused with those of real ivory. It became a very popular material and its use was extensive. Hair accessories in the form of combs, brushes, hair receivers, and other feminine items were used extensively. The popularity carried over into the jewelry as well as buttons of that time period. This year the buttons that are being highlighted at the KHM are buttons made from plastic. There are several trays of early celluloid buttons with many different construction techniques, including the early imitation ivory. These buttons are often called ivorine or ivoroid buttons. Bedroom accessories are commonly called French ivory, but are of celluloid construction.
Around the turn of the century, casein, another type of plastic came along. It was made from milk curds and treated with chemicals to give it its properties. Casein was used extensively in the manufacture of buttons at that time. In some places it is still used in the manufacture of buttons today. During the 1950s and 1960s plain casein buttons were used by the two Brooks artists (husband and wife team) to paint their colorful buttons in England. Queen Elizabeth accepted two different sets of Brooks buttons for Prince Charles and Princess Ann’s clothing when they were children. Charles’ buttons had colorful toys painted on them and Ann’s buttons had dainty flowers painted on them. Many of these buttons found their way across the Atlantic and continue to be very popular with collectors of today.
Between 1907 and 1909 Dr. Leo Hendrick Baekeland, a Belgian chemist living in America at the time, invented another synthetic plastic. The product became known as Bakelite, named after the inventor himself. It was advertised as almost an indestructible material, When hot needle tested, it very seldom leaves a mark. The colors were mostly dark, blacks, greens, brown-reds, and browns. Later, a similar product called Catalin came along with a wide range of very vibrant colors. It became extremely popular because of these beautiful colors and was used in the manufacture of buttons and jewelry. These buttons are highly collectible and sought after by collectors today. They are pricey and so popular that reproductions are being made and sometimes sold as original. Care should be taken when buying these items. You must really know the integrity of the seller.
Today, of course, there are many different kinds of plastics that have been developed and used in the manufacture of buttons. Many of these buttons have been used on children’s clothing and are sometimes in the shape of toys and other interesting items. The pearlized plastic buttons of today have taken the place of the real mother of pearl buttons originally used on men’s shirts and women’s blouses. The extensive use of plastic has found its way into the couturier market and some very unusual buttons can still be collected today. Today, wherever a person looks, plastic is in evidence in a multitude of ways. Plastic surrounds us. Some feel it has made life a lot easier. In the medical field alone, plastic is used in a variety of helpful ways. Just think of the plastic gloves that are in use in hospitals, not to mention the hundreds of other uses. Some feel there is too much plastic, especially when a struggle is needed just to get your new computer cartridges out of its plastic packaging. However, plastic is here to stay and plastic has revolutionized the button industry. So, enjoy the “Century of Plastic Buttons” now on display in the button cabinet in the Main Button Room at the Keep Homestead Museum.
The Collector’s Encyclopedia of Buttons, Sally Luscomb, 5th Edition.