For a few years I have been collecting images of beautiful hand-crafted 18th century buttons on my Pinterest board: Buttons, Georgian Style. The buttons, as you can see from the collection, are tiny works of art. Some feature scenes or portraits, others are embroidered or worked metal.
The history of buttons is fascinating. The earliest discovered button was made 5,000 years ago from a curved shell. It served a decorative function and fit into a loop, such as for a heavy robe or flowing garments. By the middle ages, the wealthy began to wear buttons that helped to fit their clothes more tightly around the body. Unlike today’s buttons, many of which are punctured with holes, most buttons back then were made with shanks, which gave button-makers leeway to decorate button faces with artistry and imagination.
The first button-makers guild was formed in France in 1250. Only the very wealthy – kings and nobility – could wear buttons then. They were such a valuable commodity that one could pay off a debt with a single button. Ladies could detach their sleeves with laces or bows or buttons. These sleeves could be washed separately from their garments, exchanged with other outfits, or even given to a lover as a token. During the Renaissance, luxurious buttons indicated social status. King Francis I ordered buttons from his jeweler; Henry VII met his future wife, Anne of Cleves, wearing bejeweled buttons.
As an aside, ladies wore their buttons on the left to make it easier for their maids to dress them. Men usually dressed themselves and thus their buttons were placed on the right. Button decoration, of course, changed with the taste of the time, from the renaissance to the baroque, to rococo, and neoclassic. By the mid-18th century, the more prosperous middle class merchants advertised their new status wearing elaborate and expensive buttons.
The variety of buttons made in the 18th century was staggering. They were crafted with ceramics, enamel, fabric, metal, repoussé or hammered metal, horn, bone, tortoise, gemstone, glass, ivory, papier mache, wood, iridescent white oyster, conch, and materials under glass, such as fabric paint, feathers, paper collage or decoupage, etc. Dandies in the Georgian era resembled colorful peacocks, dazzling onlookers, as the caricature above points out. Beau Brummel’s influence on male fashion subdued such bright fripperies.
Buttons also took on many forms, like those that were hollowed-out for smugglers to carry contraband for transporting jewels .The poor fashioned their own buttons from bone, horns, shell, or wood. Dorset buttons, which resembled tiny wheels, were made by binding linen yarn or cheap woolen yarn over a disc.
There was quite a cottage industry for Dorset buttons at this time. Work was scarce in that region in the mid-18th century, but there were some women who made buttons from home. This was a primary industry in Dorset for over a century. Women workers, often the sole breadwinners of the family, averaged 2 shillings a day for making 6 or 7 dozen buttons, which provided more preferable conditions for making money than laboring on a farm. Tracey Chevalier wrote a novel, Burning Bright, which was about Philip Astley and his amphitheatre. In it she featured a girl from Dorset who made buttons for a living – fascinating.
Interestingly, these beautiful buttons on my Pinterest page were worn by males. It wasn’t until the mid-19th century that women’s clothes began to feature buttons again. During the Georgian and Regency periods women’s clothes were pulled together and kept in place by laces, pins, sashes, and bows.