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Wednesday, January 30, 2013

A History of Buttons by Susan F. Craft

fancy gold-braided buttons
Buttons have been around for 3,000 years. Made from bone, horn, wood, metal, and seashells, they didn't fasten anything, but were worn for decoration.
The first buttons to be used as fasteners were connected through a loop of thread. The button and buttonhole arrived in Europe in 1200, brought back by the Crusaders.
The French, who called the button a bouton for bud or bouter to push, established the Button Makers Guild in 1250. Still used for adornment, the buttons they produced were beautiful works of art.
By the mid-1300s, tailors fashioned garments with rows of buttons with matching buttonholes. Some outfits were adorned with thousands of buttons, making it necessary for people to hire professional dressers. Buttons became such a craze that the Church denounced them as the devil's snare, referring to the ladies in their button-fronted dresses.
In 1520 for a meeting between King Francis I of France and King Henry VIII of England, King Francis’ clothing was bedecked with over 13,000 buttons, and King Henry’s clothing was similarly weighed down with buttons.
In the 16th century, the Puritans condemned the over-adornment of buttons as sinful, and soon the number of buttons required to be fashionable diminished, though they were make from gold, ivory, and diamonds.
By the mid-1600s, button makers used silver, ceramics, and silk and often hand painted buttons with portraits or scenery.
thread buttons
The late 17th century saw the beginning of the production by French tailors of thread buttons, little balls of thread. This angered the button artisans so much that they pressured the government to pass a law fining tailors for making thread buttons. The button makers even wanted homes and wardrobes searched and suggested that fines be levied against anyone wearing thread buttons. But in la Guerre des Boutons, it’s not clear that their demands went beyond fining of tailors.
sleeve buttons
Towards the end of the 1700s in Europe, big metallic buttons came into fashion. At this time, Napoleon introduced the use of sleeve buttons on tunics. This time period saw the development of the double-breasted jacket. When the outside of the jacket was soiled, the wearer would unbutton it, turn the soiled surface to the inside, and re-button.
death head buttons, thread
star buttons, thread
basket buttons, thread

Thread buttons were used on men's shirts and other undergarments from the late 17th into the early 19th century. Cheaper, they wouldn't break when laundresses scrubbed and beat the material. They were also used on shifts and undergarments because they were soft and comfortable. Other types of thread buttons were death head buttons, star buttons, basket buttons, and Dorset buttons.  Some said that death head buttons were called that because they resembled a skull and crossbones, memento mori, a reminder that life is short and should be lived as well as possible.  Dorset buttons originated in Dorset in southern England where they became a cottage industry. Families, prison inmates, and orphans were employed in the manufacture of thousands of Dorset buttons each year, which were used throughout the UK and exported all over the world.
wooden button molds
Bone button molds, slightly domed on one side and flat on the other, were common in the mid to late 18th century. Button molds were used to make both cloth and thread (passementerie) covered buttons.
Horn buttons were used mostly for spatterdashes and gaitered trousers. These strong durable buttons were competitive in price with other types but available in limited numbers in the 18th century since the making of them was slow.
I discovered these buttons that an artisan made from walnuts
at the Spartanburg, SC, Grove Plantation reenactment
Many colonial American buttons were made from seashells, wood, wax, and animal bones.  The bones were boiled for 12 hours, cut into small pieces, shaved around the edges and had a hole punched through them with an awl. The shape was up to the maker -- round, oval, square, rectangular, or octagonal.
Brass buttons, functional and ornamental, were also popular in colonial America. In 1750 in Philadelphia, a German immigrant, Caspar Wistar, made brass buttons guaranteed for seven years. He later opened the first successful glass making factory in the colonies.  In 1790, Henry Silas and Samuel Grilley, metalworkers in Waterbury, CT, manufactured tin and pewter buttons from sheet brass imported from England. Handmade glass buttons became popular during the second half of the nineteenth century.
The earliest known machine covered button was made by B. Sanders of Birmingham, England, in 1802. That same year, Abel Porter and Company of New England made metal buttons, as imported ones were scarce and expensive. The firm later became Scovil Manufacturing Company, which became famous for making a set of solid gold buttons bearing the profile of George Washington in relief presented to the Marquis de Lafayette during his American visit in 1824.

(I want to thank the William Booth Drapers of Racine, WI, for some of the information provided in this post as well as many of the photographs.  Please visit their website at where you’ll find a treasure trove of books about 17th and 18th century fashion -- shoes, slippers, hats, bonnets, buttons and trimmings, etc., and Packet books about sewing. Fantastic resource.  Thank you, William Booth Drapers.)


  1. Hmmm.....never knew the button had such an elaborate history. King Francis and King Henry must have been quite uncomfortable with that many buttons on their clothing...and I think the buttons that intrigue me the most are the ones made from walnuts. Ingenious!
    Great post, Susan!

  2. Debbie, when I read about King Francis, I was amazed that he could even walk about with all that weight. I loved the walnut buttons too. I like to research the Civil War, and once found a list of things that were used to make buttons including peach pits and persimmon seeds.

    1. Amazing what people can come up with! Thanks for sharing.

  3. What a fantastic post! Thank you for the wonderful references.

  4. Fascinating, Linda. I remember nearly thirty years ago seeing English entertainers in Disney World with outfits covered with buttons. I also remember my mother gallantly trying to teach me how to make covered buttons.

  5. I used this for a project and the information is amazing!!!


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