Button Workshop

I’ve always thought that to be a good dealer, you don’’t just sell your merchandise, you know your product and help the customer learn about what they are purchasing. To that end I hope this workshop will further that interest. I invite you to ask questions and learn to date buttons as to their era, material and value. Along the way it is my hope to save valuable buttons from being used for craft projects and to encourage others in the collecting of buttons.

Of course my buttoning ventures have helped my own button collection grow as well. I’’ve been a member of The California State Button Society for about 15 years. Other club members have contributed much to my growing knowledge of buttons. Some of the most interesting buttons I have collected include a hand-painted miniature on Ivory and some Enameled, Sterling, Arts and Crafts period buttons. The oldest buttons I own are from the 18th century, one of which is from the French revolution and has a catgut shank.

Sorting and cleaning
Start sifting through the button boxes of the past and you may find some treasures worth saving or selling. Grandma's buttons may be dusty and smelly but washing them is not always an option, if anything polish them with a non abrasive cloth. Metal buttons, buttons with cardboard in them, also some wood and fabric buttons will not take kindly to the water. Sort the buttons by material and store them in breathable (not airtight) containers. Metal and some older plastics, particuarly celluloid, do not mix well. Chemical reactions will disintegrate the plastic buttons and turn the metal buttons green. Set aside the more interesting finds from the old boxes and then take the time to learn more about them. There are some wonderful books available to help with your research.

RECORD OF AMERICAN UNIFORM AND HISTORICAL BUTTONS WITH SUPPLEMENT  by Albert Alphaeus Homer ~ Boyertown Pub. Co., Boyertown, Pa. 1973.

Uniform Buttons of the United States 1776 - 1865, by Warren K. Tice, Thomas Publications, Gettysburg, PA 17325, 1997

BUTTONS by Diana Epstein and Millicent Safro ~ Harry Abrams, Inc. 2001, foreword by Jim Dine, preface by Tom Wolfe, 176 pages.

THE BIG BOOK OF BUTTONS ~ Hughes, Elizabeth & Lester, Marion New Leaf, 1981, ME, 813 pp. Out of print

The Collector''s Encyclopedia of Buttons by Sally Luscomb, Crown Publishers, Inc., New York, NY, 1967. Reprinted by Schiffer Publishing Ltd., Atglen, JPA, 1992 & 1997

BUTTONS by Meredith, Alan and Gillian Shire Books, 2001

BUTTON, BUTTON: Identification and Price Guide by Peggy Osbourne, Ann Schiffer, Atglen, PA , 1997

FUN BUTTONS with Price Guide by Peggy Osbourne ~ Ann Schiffer Publishing Ltd

DISCOVERING BUTTONS by Primrose Peacock ~ Shire Publications, Buckinghamshire, England, 1984, 76 pages.

Vol I & Vol II ~ ANTIQUE & COLLECTIBLE BUTTONS: IDENTIFICATION AND VALUES  by Debra J.Wisniewski ~ Collector Books, 1997

~Button Terminology~
It is often quite useful to have some terms handy when you are researching, sorting or conversing about your buttons with dealers or other collectors. This list is a general compilation of many types of buttons most often referred to.

Abalone: Shell with deep blue green shades.

Age: Buttons from before 1918 are considered antique. Buttons after this date are modern.

Arita Porcelain: Usually back-marked. Finely painted porcelain buttons of Japanese origin. Often realistic shapes.

Bakelite: A synthetic phenolic, thermoset plastic invented between 1907 and 1909

Black glass. From the Victorian period to modern. Most all black glass buttons are glass and not 'Jet'. Many faceted designs are found and are quite common. Pictorial designs would be the type more sought after.

Burwood: A trade name for a pressed wood button. Usually with pictorial designs. One may have also seen larger items of this material. Like bookends.

Calico: China buttons with tiny decorative transfer patterns. Should not be called glass.

Cameo: Broadly used by collectors to include buttons with a cut or molded raised design. Frequently found are those of shell.

Celluloid: A thermo-plastic of a cellulose base. 1st used to imitate ivory. Then used for a multitude of buttons in molded, carved and sheet designs. They give off a carbolic acid or mothball smell (camphor) and the shanks are distinctive.

Ceramic: can include Pottery, jasperware, porcelain and Satsuma.

Cinnabar: mostly a red color. Carved laquer combined materials buttons from China.

Composition: a mixture of materials button which is molded. Often these have metallic flecks.

Enamel: A metal decorating art of fused glass. Some types of enamel are Basse-taille, Champleve, cloisonne and emaux peints.

Fabric: includes covered buttons of cloth and crochet. Garter buttons with the cute little Flapper faces are fabric.

Gilt. Early brass buttons with a gold coating.

Glass: Antique if made before 1918. Modern if after. There are many construction types. Heavier than plastic and cool to touch.

Hallmark: an official stamp to attest standard. Includes town where assayed, country and date. This may be sued in relation to Silver buttons

Horn: material from the hoof and horns of animals.

Jet: a VERY scarce material. Lightweight mineral. Always carved, never molded. Takes a Nice. lustre when polished. Black glass imitates it but is much heavier and glossier.

Jewel Buttons: Having ONE stone in the center. Some of these 'may' be Gay 90's type.

Lithograph: Can look like miniature paintings. Under magnification you will find the tiny dots that make up the image.

Livery: Buttons with a crest. Very Heraldic looking. One piece metal buttons.

Lucite: A trade name for a clear plastic.

Mosaic: Buttons with tiny bits of glass in the center forming a picture.

Paperweight: Buttons with a 'setup' and a cap of clear glass to give depth.

Pearl: Buttons from Mollusk shells. Can be very iridescent or plainer. Carved and Pictorial are the more desirable.

Picture Buttons: Buttons having designs other than geometric. Mostly Metal and produced in quantity from 1880 to 1900.

Plastic: Moldable materials almost exclusively synthetic. Profuse in quantity.

Porcelain: white bodied buttons of clay. Heavily glazed with transfer or painted designs.

Realistic: Buttons In the "shape" of the object they represent.

Rubber: Most found are back marked Goodyear.

Satsuma: Japanese pottery. They have very finely painted designs with gold outlining.

Steel: Material was used extensively on 19th century buttons. As actual buttons, as the base of buttons called steel cups, where other materials may be included and as trim. It is most often seen as facets that resemble marcasite.

Studio: Buttons made for collectors and not for the 'trade' where they would be marketed to the public at large.

Studs: Button look-likes with a post and disk on the reverse. Fasteners for Cuffs, shirtwaists, vests and collars.

Uniform Buttons: These can include Military and Non Military. There are many types from Transportation to Scouting.

Vegetable Ivory: A natural material from the nut of the Tagua or corozo palm. It's natural color is ivory-like. Many are dyed with impressed designs.

Victorian: A term which could loosely apply to buttons made from 1850 to 1900

Recognizing buttons

Bakelite does not have a huge variety of shanks. There are drilled sew thrus, drilled self-shanks and metal loop shanks

"Bakelite" is one of the most mis-used keywords in online Button sales. It seems everyone would love their buttons to be of this material, even though it is primarily the realistic bakelite buttons that have the value.

A bit about bakelite testing.

An easy to use bakelite test is Simichrome polish. An alternative is to make a small amount of paste out of comet or any cleaning powder. Dampen a white cloth ...dab some paste..and polish in an unobtrusive spot on the button. If the color comes off yellow then you have bakelite. The Chemical residue of the button is on the surface. 

I do not suggest cleaners with chemicals like 409 or scrubbing bubbles.
Author Peggy Ann Osborne has done research for an upcoming book on plastics and after much discussion with chemical researchers and laboratory technicians she has concluded that one can't gage the long term effects introducing such a chemical as that in scrubbing bubbles could have on your buttons.

This research also brought to light that the deterioration of celluloid
buttons may be because of a chemical in the glue used to attach the shanks. The crazing and crumbling of old celluloid buttons usually begins in the shank area.

Recognizing Celluloid Buttons

Celluloid buttons can be recognized primarily by the shank.


You will find the mound with the bite from each side, the looped flat ribbon and metal loop shanks, very typical.

Celluloid is the material of button you need to be more aware of than the bakelites. Many's the time I've seen an online listing that has deteriorating celluloid buttons.


Look for Crazing, crackling and crumbling buttons. Buttons with a strong odor of mothballs and sticky to touch are also suspect.

If you find these in your collection or see Photos like the above, I'm afraid they are not good for much but the wastecan. The reason for this is that they will continue to deteriorate and will cause damage to your good celluloid buttons as well as other buttons, especially metal.

Recognizing Glass Buttons

Glass buttons can also be recognized by the shank. You can also compare the material to plastic by the 'tooth tap test'. You can definately feel a difference in the temperature and hardness of glass or plastics.


Glass buttons have the greatest variety of shanks. From metal loop, grooved box shank, self shank, two way hump shank and more.

Collecting by subject

Whatever your collecting passion, it's quite likely that you would be able to add to it by including buttons. Practically anything you could think of, has, at one time or another been featured on them. If your mania is Panda Bears, for instance, have you any idea how many different kinds of buttons and materials they are made of might have something panda related?

Collecting buttons by topic must be one of the more popular aspects of the hobby. In fact, it is an important aspect of the Button Society
classification system and greatly adds to the fun of collecting buttons for competition. Yes, button collectors love to show off their collection and even compete against each other at State and National levels. Buttons with pictorial designs have been made during all periods. The oldest and finest made of this type are from the late 1700's. 

Pictorial image buttons seem to be the most plentiful through the Victorian era and into the early 1900's. Of these types of image buttons, it seems those of animals were made in quantity. From the likely, as in a bunny rabbit, to the unlikely. Would you wear a button with a Rat on it? Favored subjects, as in the cat, for example, are not so plentiful as you might think. Amazingly, dog buttons apparently far outnumber the cat ones, thus making it a bit more expensive accumulating kitty buttons. You can hunt for animal buttons from A to Z or even use the animal kingdom classification. Remember what you learned in school? Mammals, birds and reptiles. Vertebrates and invertebrates. Absolutely, you can find them all on buttons!

©Clare Bazley ~ abuttonlady Back To Top