The 19th century should certainly be known as the “Era of Buttons.” Some of the most beautiful buttons ever produced were during those one hundred years. Last year’s featured buttons at the Keep Homestead Museum were glass buttons. Some from the 19th century and others from the past 20th century will be mounted in the large button cabinet in Myra’s Button Room. It is evident that glass buttons held a special place in Myra’s collection as there are a vast number of these buttons from which to choose.
One type of button that was ever popular in the 19th century was the small swirl back button that very often was mounted on the charm strings of the last half of that century. The story of the Keep Homestead Museum charm string is in the button archives on this website. However, more information has come to light since that was written. While doing some other research, another article about charm strings surfaced. It seems that in some parts of this country it was the custom to begin a “marriage string” when a girl baby was born into a family. Then, on the girl’s 10th birthday, she was given a tea and everyone who attended brought her buttons for her string. If she received duplicates she could swap for others that she did not have. This brought about the custom of girls meeting on a Sunday afternoon and having button-swapping sessions for their marriage strings. This custom began around 1850 and continued until around 1900. With new inventions in the 20th century this pastime activity died out. However, many of these strings have survived into the 21st century. Often partially finished strings may be found wrapped in tissue paper and stored in old family trunks.
In 1941 Lillian Smith Albert wrote in her book A Button Collector’s Second Journal, about a charm string that she had purchased from the original owner, Miss Emily Robbins Childs. Miss Childs’ charm string was on display at the Cooper Union Museum in New York City when Mrs. Albert first saw it. Upon talking to the curator and then to the owner, she learned that the owner’s father had been a merchant in NYC and a salesman with whom he dealt, an importer, gave Miss Emily the buttons from some of his sample cards. Consequently most of the buttons were in “proof” condition. Mrs. Albert was able to purchase the charm string and stated that she was planning to use it as a “reference library” to date buttons. More importantly she discussed a type of button found on the string. There were 30 perfect kaleidoscope buttons on it as well as 17 shank plates whose tops had been lost. Consequently Mrs. Albert decided to restring the buttons and remove all kaleidoscope buttons from the string because of their fragility. And she advised all button collectors to do the same with their charm strings. Other important information that surfaced was that kaleidoscopes were named by D. F. Johnson, and those buttons on the string dated back to 1876. Other pertinent information in the article described the kaleidoscope buttons as having a large metal shank plate completely covering the whole button base on which a loop had been soldered. Over this shank plate had been placed color pigment or a metal foil design. To this was cemented a glass top alone. The most common tops were plain convex, others were faceted and sometimes a design was molded to the concave top. The choice tops were intaglio designs either cut or molded into the base of the glass and usually in one color. This seemed to give the button more depth and roundness to the design as opposed to the customary design, which was just a paper design or metal foil. Various patterns of flowers, heads and geometric cuts into the glass gave the appearance of enclosed medallions. She ended this piece by stating that whether or not you called these buttons kaleidoscopes, two-piece paperweights, or plaids they should be treated carefully as most of the glue had dried out and the buttons were liable to come apart unless treated carefully. There is one card of kaleidoscope buttons on display in the Keep, and they were recarded. I am so glad I did not know of their fragility before undertaking that difficult task. Mr. Albert stated that all the buttons on the string were of the “jewel type.” There was a picture of the childs’ charm string on the title page of her book.
In the new display you will see many buttons that have not been out of storage for some time. Others are examples of what I call teaching cards, in that you will see buttons that have been originally labeled by Myra to show prime examples of different types of buttons. In recent years some of these titles have changed, but the museum has left them as found. This will show that history is not always cast in stone and does get revised at times, especially as new information surfaces.
The small jewel buttons with metal rims are called “weskit” buttons. The metal rims surround the glass centers that were frequently produced at the Sandwich Glass Works of Massachusetts. They are also called Golden Age buttons, if they have the correct backmarks. They date from the 1840s time period, and they certainly enhanced the front of men’s clothing.
Other very beautiful and popular types of glass buttons were the Gay Nineties buttons. These buttons were usually large buttons with ornately designed metal rims and faces with glass pieces inserted into the pattern to resemble gemstones. Sometimes, of course, they were real gems. But more frequently they were of the type on exhibit here at the Keep Homestead Museum. Paste glass and cut steel were used to embellish the button and make it shine brightly under candlelit or gaslit chandeliers of the theater or opera houses. These buttons were used to beautify the cloaks and capes at that time. The National Button Society has recently renamed these Gay Nineties buttons as their manufacture did not always fall within the Gay Nineties timeline and were actually manufactured from c. 1880-1930. They are presently called “large jeweled” buttons and oftentimes the Art Nouveau, Art Deco and Egyptian Revival periods influenced the designs on the buttons.
Other examples of glass from this era are the Popper buttons, incorporating pieces of foil into the face of the buttons. There are also examples of black lustered glass, including silver, gold and iridescence on the button’s front. Fine examples of Victorian glass in bright turquoise or custard/tan colors with gold outlines on the raised surfaces are included. There are also some fine examples of both large and small lacy glass buttons on display. Many collectors like to concentrate their efforts on just this type of glass and look for prime examples that have not lost their back paint.
Leaving the 19th century and entering the post 1918 time period, we have examples of glass produced in Germany, U.S. Zone, on display as well as glass made in the United States and Czechoslovakia. Moonglows have become a very popular type of glass to collect. And the face on these glass buttons has a thin layer of clear or colored glass that can be seen as it is held sideways to the light at eye level. These buttons came in many shapes, colors and sizes, and were commonly made in the 1950s and embellished with gold and silver and paste accents.
Lester and Hughes in The Big Book of Buttons call paperweight buttons the “aristocrats of glass buttons” as they represent the epitome of the glassmaker’s skill and knowledge. There were, of course, paperweights made before 1918, but those in this case are primarily Studio Paperweights created by glass artists of the 20th century. There are some beautiful examples at the Keep whether old or of a newer time period. There are examples of studio paperweight artists such as Kaziun, Rarig, Erickson, Weinman, Gooderham, and others. The sulphides on display are not a common type of paperweight, but they are very popular with collectors. Other types of paperweights that are popular with today’s collector are known as millefiori paperweights and are created by the use of different colored glass rods fused together to form the various designs that are achieved by the glass artist. The construction of a paperweight button usually consists of three parts: the colored glass base (1) has the “set up” or design (2) placed on top of that base and then a glass type dome (3) encases the other two pieces. Sometimes there are very elaborate designs between the base and the dome. Some are very simply done.
There are other modern types of glass buttons of this same time period, many are in realistic shapes and were used on children’s clothing. Whatever type of glass that interests you, I am sure you will find at least one example of it at the Keep Homestead Museum. There is such a variety of glass buttons that it is impossible to mention all of the types, but you will see them on exhibit. Do not hesitate to ask questions as you view the buttons.
The Big Book of Buttons, Elizabeth Hughes & Marion Lester, 1991
A Button Collector’s Second Journal, Lillian Smith Albert, 1941
Antique & Collectible Buttons, Debra J. Wisniewski, 1997