What are Buttons Made From?

collage of a variety of buttonsWhen a person looks at their buttons they usually can say this one is plastic, that one is metal and that one is cloth and that one is glass and that one is made of mother of pearl.

I say usually. However, that is no longer really the case. Many of the materials used before the invention of plastics were usually easier to identify than the buttons on the market today! But there were once some very exotic types of materials used over the centuries by people making buttons.

Buttons have been around for centuries! Just recently there was a large and very expensive find by some metal detectors in the UK that found some beautiful buttons buried in the ground. These were made of gold and polished garnet cabochons from the 6th century. Up until this find it was thought that all buttons were made from stone or bone and very crudely made. This find has exploded that theory and made it a myth!

When buttons were first being made it was the job of jewelers to produce these fine pieces of art. Members of royalty and the aristocracy were able to afford hundreds of these buttons that were used more for trim rather than to fasten clothing. They beautified their clothing with fine gems, gold and silver. You can see examples of these in fine paintings of the period.

One of many cabinets showcasing button cards. (photo courtesy Judy Weaver)

So what are your buttons made from? Buttons have been made of many different materials, some special and some very common, some as common as dirt, wood, paper, horn, milk, bone and shells. Others such as glass have been blown, molded, etched, wheel cut, leaded, layered, ground, inlaid, overlaid, hand-built, caned, lustred, colored, and set in metal. Gemstones such as rubies, garnets, opals, and pearls have been set in silver and gold, and used to ornament kings’ robes and finery.

Over the years waste materials such as sawdust have been combined with chemicals and molded into some really beautiful buttons and were very popular in the 1920s. In the mid-19th century celluloid was created and became a popular material for making buttons to imitate the look of ivory.

Potatoes, soybeans, and petroleum have been adapted to create materials suitable for buttons of all sizes and shapes. Over the years the use of coal, amber, coconut shells, fabrics, fruit pits, bamboo, rubber, and tagua nuts have joined the list of button materials.

It is a challenge to put together a card of 25 buttons following a specific theme and incorporating as many different materials as possible. But many in the hobby of button collecting do just that. Myra was no exception, there are many examples throughout the museum of cards prepared by Myra using many different materials on some of the cards. When you visit the Keep Homestead Museum see how many you can find among the many buttons on display!

Written by Jacquie Hatton, 2011