What's Out There: Button Jars

We all have our jar of buttons collected over the years. Or in my case, a large drawer with several people’s button jars. My mom enjoys going to yard and estate sales and always manages to find really great treasures, often sewing or knitting things and has given me a few fun containers of buttons. Sometimes even the containers are interesting. They don’t make those square, tin, saltine cracker containers anymore, that’s for sure!

Buttons as decoration have been around since 2600 BCE and were used to decorate clothing. Internet sources say they were first used to close or secure clothing in Germany in the early 13th century. The reinforced buttonhole was brought to Europe by the crusaders. Of course, that begs the question of where the crusaders got it, and if they brought reinforced buttonholes/buttons to Europe, where did they find them? At any rate, the crusaders are credited, and the first button-makers guild formed in France in 1250. By the 14th century, button use was widespread across Europe. Closable clothing allowed for much more form-fitting designs than what could be achieved with pull-on clothing.

Buttons became a tiny mirror of their times, reflecting the social and political events of the day. They can be dated by what types of materials they are made of, what designs are included, and how they are made. The golden age of buttons was during the 18th century. Buttons became extremely decorative and were created as miniature works of art. They were very profitable for artists, and were often much larger than what we typically use today. The most exquisitely detailed were about the size of a 50 cent piece. Uniform buttons could indicate rank and regiment, servants’ livery could indicate their employer’s wealth, social and political status. George Washington’s 1789 inauguration gave the world its first political button. When Queen Victoria went into mourning in 1861, she chose jet for all her buttons, making jet incredibly popular for buttons during the late 19th century. The four-hole button we now think of as standard was introduced around the turn of the 20th century.

While I’m sure there were people collecting buttons, the National Button Society made the hobby official in 1938. Most button collectors specialize in certain types, and there are MANY types of both type and materials.

Recently, my mom has started collecting buttons, joined the Button Society and has searched back through all those button jars she gave me over the years. She specializes in livery and military buttons, which can be quite expensive. A Civil War era Navy button goes for $900!

Check your button jars! You may have some real treasures in there! For more information try Button Country and the National Button Society.

May your bobbins always be full!

Leigh Wheeler