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Buttons and beaux: Fashion archive, 26 May 1973

A box found in an attic in New England had a label on the lid saying: “String too short to be saved.” This Puritan sense of economy about all sorts of things has benefited later generations; our grandmothers or great-grandmothers would never throw away a worn-out garment without taking off the buttons first and putting them aside for another day.

So boxes in attics are a great source of supply to collectors of old buttons; at the same time many of these prizes are not hoarded on cards or in drawers but are used to add interest to clothes. They can make a mass-produced article more individualistic and can add a final touch to clothes created at home.

They are a mirror not only of fashion but also of social custom. It is said that a Scottish soldier going away liked to wear silver buttons so that if he died his body could be brought home for burial. A bride in Boston, Mass., in the early eighteenth century burst into tears when her bridegroom outshone her in his rose-coloured waistcoat with buttons of dark pink shell set in silver and silver-grey coat with buttons of shell. People invested their money, before the rise of proper banks and shareholdings, in jewels, gold and silver – and that included jewelled buttons. Queen Henrietta Maria sold Charles I’s diamond buttons to raise money for troops.

Few examples survive from before the eighteenth century, but some of the most fascinating are from that time. Most were for men, who if they could afford it clothed themselves like peacocks. This was the age of the craftsman makers, but they were to be superseded by machinery. Machine-made buttons are more easily identified, and from about 1800 manufacturers often put their names on the back. Other aides to identification and dating are plates from magazines.

The materials range from diamonds to plastic, from porcelain to paper, from gold to pewter. Some are of feathers or butterflies’ wings; some are miniature pieces of nature made from grasses, flowers, insects, stones and shells. Enamel examples are priced but fragile. Josiah Wedgwood made buttons of his famous pottery, jasper ware. Eskimos made them of walrus ivory, in abstract or animal forms.

Birmingham was an important centre for several types, in gilt metal, silver, cut steel, or mother-of-pearl. It is said that underneath the town hall are thousands of tons of mollusc shells, the waste from workshops which used mother-of-pearl.

The designs are even more varied, but some special categories have their following among collectors. Top families used to have special buttons made for their servants’ liveries incorporating monograms or heraldic themes – coronets, crests, fabulous beasts, and so on.

Hunts used their initials or names, or foxes, stags, hares, horns, and riding crops. Military buttons are a world of their own, with specialisms and sub-divisions almost ad infinitum.

Highly popular with Americans are Victorian ‘picture’ buttons, usually in metal, which show animals, plants, objects, and scenes from fables, mythology, history, poetry, opera, and drama.

Art nouveau designs incorporate writhing foliage and ethereal ladies with flowing hair. Art deco, the style of the 1920s and 1930s, sometimes used exactly the appropriate medium – plastic with chromium lustre. The late 1930s and 1940s had a fad for miniature reproductions of fruit, vegetables, pastries and even a complete dinner of lamb chop, peas, and potatoes. Walt Disney’s characters appear – for example Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

The greatest collectors are the Americans, who have clubs, magazines, and exhibitions with prizes for the best displays. The hobby is catching on here, but no clubs or magazines have yet been established and only one dealer has a shop – Toni Frith, the “Button Queen” of St Christopher’s Place, north of Oxford Street, London. She showed me many splendid buttons – and one from a man’s fly, inscribed ‘Gentlemen Only.’ A useful and inexpensive book is “Buttons” by Diana Epstein, published by Studio Vista.

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