Friday, September 25, 2009

Categories of Vintage Buttons

There are several good sites on the internet to help you learn to identify vintage buttons.  When I first started collecting I found them both useful and overwhelming.  Useful, as I gleaned identification tips from several places.  Overwhelming in the sheer volume and detail of information.  So, I thought I'd do a very basic guide to the more common button categories.  At a later point I'll do a blog about some of the subsets and more unusual types of buttons, but for now we'll stick to the basics.  Identifying old buttons isn't as hard as it would seem.  For the most part it's a simple matter of using our senses - seeing, feeling, hearing and smelling.  Occasionally we'll need to do a little more, but for the most part it's fairly simple once you know what to look for.  Most buttons fall into one of the following categories:

Metal - easiest of all to identify and some of the most beautiful.  Most are made of brass, nickel, or aluminum but occasionally you find them made of pewter, silver and even gold.  The most popular to collect are the pictorials and the twinkies (buttons with a cut out design that "twinkle" as they catch the light.) which are also known as mirrorbacks or flashbacks  Within this category you'll also find military buttons (with civil war being the most popular), gay 90s or jewels, enamels, and cut or faceted steels.  Identifying the older ones is done by looking at the back of the button where the shank is.  The shape of the loop and how it is attached to the button give clues to the possible age of the button.

Glass - Feels cool to the touch.  Take a glass button and a plastic button and touch both to your cheek and you'll find that no matter how hot or cold the day is the glass will feel noticiably cooler.  Glass buttons are one area where you'll find people who collect both vintage and modern buttons.  Czech glass is highly sought after for it's iridescent quality as well as the beautiful and intricate designs.  Besides the Czech collectors also seek out rhinestones, black glass (Victorian era), moonglows and paperweights (which look like miniature paperweights).

Ceramic or China - A close cousin to glass, china buttons come in all shapes and sizes.  Probably the most popular are the china stencils which look like they have a stenciled geometric design and the calicos which are patterned after calico fabric. 

Mother of Pearl or Shell - Again, a button easy to tell by feeling as well as looking.  First, it too feels cool to your cheek.  Second, if you turn the button over you can see the striations (looks like little ridges or lines) as well as the strange coloring of the shell.  In this group, anything that's carved or etched is highly collectible.  If it's got a natural coloring to it, that's even better.

Plastics - the hardest of all to identify for the new collector.  We'll break this down into Celluloid, Bakelite and Lucite
  • Celluloid - Early plastic popular until about 1920 or so.  It is highly flammable!  Place this button under hot tap water (only with a solid button, not one with any type of metal as water can destroy a tight top button)  Pull it out and sniff.  You should get a menthol smell.  Think back to how the Vicks vaporub your mother used to use when you where sick and you'll know what it should smell like.  Popular types of buttons are the carved/etched wafers and the tight tops which are celluloid tops stretched over a metal back.
  • Bakelite - 2 basic ways to identify are hot water or Simichrome polish.  Hot water test can be used just like for celluloid except this time when you pull it out it'll smell "fishy" - think cod liver oil.  Another way to identify it is to start with a clean button, put a tiny amount on a clean cloth and gently rub the button.  If the cloth turns yellow the button is Bakelite.  Simichrome is also useful for cleaning and polishing buttons.  Bakelite buttons are one of the most collected.  People collect cookies, apple juice (a kind of clear one) those that come in shapes, and practically anything else you can think of.  Also a very popular type for turning into jewelry.
  • Lucite/Early Thermoset - doesn't have any smell when tested.  Usually lighter than Bakelite but heavier than celluloid. 
  • Casein - If using a hot needle test (not recommended) this one smells like sour milk (Peee-ewwww!) 
Realistics/Goofies and Snap Togethers - Realistics or goofies are buttons (usually plastic) that are shaped like everyday objects.  They come in all shapes and sizes.  You can find flowers, food, circus animals and even cartoon characters!  Snap Togethers are the modern day plastic buttons that you can find in any fabric store.  Again they come in fun shapes.  They're known as snap togethers because they are formed in 2 parts that "snap" together.

Miscellaneous Materials - Buttons have been made out of practically anything you can think of.  There are ones made from wood, rubber, bone, antlers, paper mache, horn, and  corozo nuts (buttons were carved from the corozo nuts of the tague palm. The material resembled ivory, therefore “vegetable ivory” buttons)

That would be a basic breakdown of button categories.  As you can see, there are lots of  categories to pick from.  Whether you collect a specific type of like a mixture, there's sure to be a button out there to catch your eye.  As this blog progresses, we hope to do more of the categories and buttons styles. 


  1. Thank-you! A lovely quick overview. It is a hobby that is far more complex than most people realize - or want to study. All those people who find it too difficult should give me ALL their buttons! LOL! But it is a fascinating study, too. It is so very human. This research will take you through history and all over the planet.
    The history of fashion, politics, manufacturing innovations, art movements - and much more. Did these plain, worn bone buttons fasten the "union suit" of a Civil War soldier? Did these lovely realistics brighten the otherwise drab world of a Depression era housewife? Were these gorgeous black glass buttons used on a dress during a period of deep mourning? Hold them in your hands and feel the lives they have touched.
    Travel from South America where the native people brought the nuts of the tagua palm upriver to the crazy white people who would buy them! to Alaska where buttons were carved from bones of the whale and the walrus. Travel to China for cinnabar and jade; to Russia for enamels to take your breath away, and back to the USA for shell from the great rivers of the midwest. All over the globe.
    It shines a light on human endeavor for the last five centuries - give or take, depending upon your "expert". Although buttons themselves are small, they can take you far in your travels of the mind.

  2. thank you i still remember the odd smell my grandmothers old button box had. It was like a plastic cellulite smell. I loved her flower shaped buttons, the violets, the animal shapes. I wish someone had saved it. She has been gone a long time and the button box is no more. But I inherited my mothers button box but her's are all La Mode, quality dressmaker buttons. a few metal buttons which she used on jackets but I doubt any are real brass. A few are real mother of pearl. One says Mother of Pearl JHB international Denver Co. And all La Mode and Chic say B. Blumenthal & co. I think I am going to start haunting estate sales and search for old buttons. Thanks for the pointers