One of the largest collections of inlay buttons is on permanent display at the Keep Homestead Museum. I refer, of course, to Myra’s mosaic button collection. There are two types of mosaic buttons on display, the Roman mosaics made in Rome, Italy and the Florentine mosaics made in Florence, Italy. The Roman mosaics are made from tiny pieces of stone or glass called tesserae that are set into a tar-like substance to form the design on the face of the button. There are some very beautiful scenes depicting Vatican Square, the Roman Coliseum and other various landscapes as well as flowers, birds, dogs, insects and people. There are buttons with a diameter of about 2 inches and then there are the very tiny micro-mosaic buttons. Be sure to use a magnifying glass when examining these buttons so you do not miss any of the detail on the buttons.
Special floor cabinets were designed and built to house this mosaic collection and although many of the buttons change on a rotating basis the mosaics remain on permanent display. The second type of mosaic buttons on exhibit is the Florentine mosaics made in Florence, Italy. They are also known as pietra dura buttons and are a form of precision inlay buttons. The interior of the button has been carved or cut out to house the face design of the button. Tiny pieces of stone or glass are precisely set into the middle of the button face. When completed, it is polished and smoothed to create a level button top.
Mosaics have been made by artisans for centuries; mosaic floors have been uncovered in ancient Roman ruins. However, the buttons in Myra’s collection cover only approximately 100 years, c. 1850–1950. Myra purchased the entire collection in the 1960s and it became the pride of her collection. Originally these buttons were made in Rome and Florence to be sold to the tourists who were taking a world tour. To tell the age of the mosaic buttons examine the button face. Generally, the finer the detail on the button face, the older the button. The chunky and less smooth button surface indicates the newer buttons in the collection. They have not been polished and smoothed to a level face. Many of these chunky buttons were set into base metal and were sold in five-and-dime stores in the late 1940s after World War II. You will notice that there are also some black glass tiles in the mosaic cabinets. If you look very closely you will see that the interior of the tiles have tiny pieces of glass incorporated into their designs. In the 1960s when the collection was purchased they were classified as tile inlay buttons. Recently that classification has changed and they are simply classified as having a tile-like construction in the black glass section. However, in the Smith & Fuoss book Return Engagement of Black Glass Buttons on p. 26, “we have broken some of these buttons to see how they were made, the inlay is very shallow, many of them white, etc.” I suppose that is why the change has been made. At least two of those in the Keep Homestead Museum collection have inserts of blue and white. We will not remove these tiles from the exhibit at this time, but will leave them as they were originally carded. Having checked several of the classification books, it is only in the last couple of years that these changes have been made. Whether these pieces of glass were impressed or precisely inserted remains a mystery because of their age. Perhaps using the present nomenclature “tile type” covers it.
Other inlay buttons on display for this year‘s April opening are buttons which contain inlays or veneers in horn, celluloid, bone, mother of pearl, wood, tortoise shell, vegetable ivory, composition, papier-mâché, and black glass. Please note the various examples and the labels attached to identify the different type of inlays and veneers. Please note that the veneers are thin slices of various substances, such as abalone that have been adhered to papier-mâché in a layering process such as veneering, or japanning and smoothed to create the button design. Wood buttons in the form of marquetry or parquetry are also sometimes done in this thin layering process to create the various face designs on the buttons. Very often put together in geometric shapes like in a jigsaw puzzle. Many of the inlay buttons were produced by introducing flecks or pieces of mother of pearl or copper, gold, etc., and were impressed into the main body of the button while it was still warm and pliable. This is called impression inlay. The precision inlay buttons such as the Florentine mosaics are created by bits and pieces of stone or glass being inlaid into a precise pre-cut design on the face of the button. When completed the face of the button is polished level and smooth. There are also some overlay buttons and glass on glass buttons are included in this display as they show another method of adhering items on the face of the button. A good example of this is the Tingue button, where foil is adhered to the base of the button and then another piece of faceted glass is attached over the foil. Whatever the method of inlay or overlay that was used to produce these unique and beautiful works of art we are truly grateful to the artists that produced them.
Once again I am truly indebted for the information that I have gathered from various sources: