Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Buttons : History

Short History of the Button.

Buttons have been in use for hundreds of years. In very early times, clothing was fastened with ties or pins, but gradually buttons as we know them came to be in use.

Prehistoric buttons ?
Archaeologists have found buttons or button-like objects in pre-historic burial grounds (a.o. Egypt, Phoenicia, France, Germany).
They are round, they seem to have shanks. Some are gold, some bone, some clay. Some are plain, others engraved with designs.
We see objects that look suspiciously like buttons, at the gather of a garment, or hanging pendant-like around the neck of an official.
But are they really buttons? Probably not, in the modern sense of a functional fastener. But they were certainly a precursor of the modern button. In the Early and Middle Bronze Age, large buttons were primarily used to fasten cloaks.

Middle Ages.
About 1250 the Provost of Paris established laws governing French craft guilds. One of these was the buttonmaker's guild. This is about the earliest recorded indication that buttons were becoming increasingly popular. And, they were also becoming buttons in the true modern sense, thanks to the invention of the buttonhole. The Crusaders, returning from battles in the Middle East, are believed to have introduced the buttonhole to Europe. This significant invention had a great impact on fashion, since fabrics could now be overlapped and buttoned.
Although buttons were widely in use, it was mainly as decoration. As most clothing of that time period was closed with lacing or hooks, garments didn’t use buttons as methods of closing on a regular basis until the last half of the 16th century. Most of the buttons from this time period were small, but over the next century or so they became larger and very ornate, often using precious metals and jewels. People found buttons aesthetically pleasing. Inevitably, they came to be symbols of rank and fortune.

The 17th and 18th Century.
During the 17th century, as garments became more form-fitting, the button gained importance for both its decorative and utilitarian features. Buttons were used predominantly on men’s fashions (waistcoats, vests and breeches).
The fashions and buttons of France were copied eagerly by the rest of Europe. And as always, it was the French kings who set the trends. Kings and queens even had buttons inlaid with gems to signify their wealth and status.
By the 18th century, buttons were becoming larger, and had even more elaborate designs.

The 19th Century.
Buttons continued to make a fashion statement and the button-making industry hit such a high standard that the period from 1830-1850 has become known as the Golden Age. As mass production techniques progressed, and new synthetic materials were developed, the general standard declined. From 1860 on, buttons became a craze as “decorative” items on women’s clothing since, at that time, women were still fastened into their clothing with laces and hooks. However, the importance of buttons for men’s clothing dominated the industry until the mid 19th century.
Buttons became smaller, usually about half the size of 18th century buttons. And, while they might still be handcrafted works of art, more often now they were mass-produced. Both functional and decorative, they were now prevalent in both men’s and women’s fashions. France was slow to mechanize, so England gradually became the world's premier buttonmaker.
Other types of buttons appeared for the first time: sparkly gilt buttons; glass buttons, clear or deeply colored, decorated with paintings, inlays, molded scenes; vulcanized rubber buttons; vegetable ivory buttons, from the corozo nut; enameled buttons from China; fine porcelain buttons, with painted or transfer-printed designs; cloth-covered buttons, etc.

Modern Buttons.
Around the start of the 20th century men adopted the 4-hole button as their standard. And women soon followed suit especially after more "man tailored" clothing became popular after World War I, due to the influence of the military uniform. So it hastened the decline of the more colourful shank button. The 4-hole button is a wonderful invention, but it simply doesn't offer the decorative possibilities that a shank button does. Other enemies to the fancy button came up. Modern synthetics. The zipper. And later, the spin drier. Unfortunately, costume jewelry also became popular, lessening the need for fancy buttons as wardrobe accents. Sadly, most buttons were becoming the mundane, mass-produced variety made from cheap plastic materials.

Based on:

The World’s Most Popular Collectible Secret!
All About Buttons
A History of the Button
The Button Lover's Book (Creative Machine Arts Series) by Marilyn V. Green
The Collector's Encyclopedia of Buttons (Schiffer Book for Collectors) by Sally C. Luscomb
Buttons: The Collector's Guide to Selecting, Restoring, and Enjoying New and Vintage Buttons by Nancy Fink and Maryalice Ditzler
Book of Buttons: A Practical and Creative Guide to the Decorative Use of Buttons by Joyce Whittemore


Kreativlink said...

I was waiting for the history part and I enjoyed reading if from start to finish! Never knew it had even buttonmaker guilds. But well, little did I know about buttons at all so far :)

Heli said...

Interesting Kraplap! thanks for the info!

birribe said...

That was interesting to read. I love that embroderi button.

Carol Dean said...

What a great history lesson, Petronella! Danke!

P and P said...

Fascinating Your post makes me want to design buttons!