All About Collecting, Storing, and Cleaning Buttons
Big Beautiful Buttons
I have a lot of buttons. I love colorful buttons.
As a scrapbook artist and greeting card designer, I use buttons in everyday craft work. It came as quite a surprise when I was searching online for another crafter's stash of buttons to buy second-hand and found buttons selling for hundreds of dollars. Some even sold for thousands (for just a single button). I had no idea buttons were so collectible or valuable!
So, you can imagine how delighted I was coming across a huge box filled with old buttons at an antique store in Putnam, Connecticut. Originally, Putnam was a New England mill town that provided clothing to civil war soldiers. At the turn of the twentieth century, Putnam developed a large antique center in place of the empty mills. Today there are less than 10,000 people that reside in Putnam, Connecticut.
Putnam is one of those towns to which you plan a day trip just to go antiquing. That's exactly how I came across my new stash of old buttons. During this last trip a year or more ago, I was disappointed to see more than half of my favorite antique stores had closed. The supreme button collection I found well made up for it.
When I got home with my box of buttons, I placed a bath towel on the floor and dumped out all of the buttons so I could sort through them without any rolling away.
The antique store clerk said the buttons were taken in on consignment from a customer who purchased them at an estate sale. At the bottom of the box was a gold necklace and some loose change. My best guess was that these old buttons had been stashed in this cardboard box for a long time.
How to Store Buttons
The stash of buttons I acquired was too large to store in anything I had available in my craft studio.
I drove down to the local hardware store and purchased a case of large-sized canning jars. After filling them, I still had buttons left over. I went to a thrift store and found some mismatched glass jars and thought I would put the rest in those and organize them on a bookshelf.
I organized the buttons by color. My rule of thumb when storing old buttons is to store like-materials together. There are, however, exceptions to this rule.
Store alone. Over time, they can corrode metal buttons. Ideally, mount on acid-free cards.
Plastic buttons can build up fumes in an enclosed air-tight container. These are best stored in places with consistent temperature and low humidity.
The History of Buttons
Buttons usually serve as fasteners or ornamental decorations. Originally, before the buttonhole, buttons were used as decoration on clothing. It's believed that Europe introduced the buttonhole to the middle east.
The first buttons were actually made from seashells, while today most buttons are made from plastic. In the 1500s, men wore buttons as a status of wealth.
In researching information for this article, I learned that some individual states have button clubs. There is also a National Button Society!
Many museums have button collections. One of the most famous private button collectors, Dalton Stevens, is referred to as the Button King. He created a suit adorned with 16,000 buttons and a car with 149,000 buttons. He is also proud owner of the Button Museum located in South Carolina.
Buttons in Museums
Number of Buttons on Display
Victoria and Albert Museum
Searchable online database with over 1 million button results
Washington, DC, USA
Mattatuck Museum, Button Gallery
Waterbury, CT, USA
Keep Homestead Museum
Monson, MA, USA
Several thousands cards of buttons
The Button Room
Gurnee, IL, USA
Metropolitan Museum of Art
New York, NY, USA
Golf Club Button Collection
Toms River, NJ, USA
How to Repurpose Buttons
Here at my home, whenever a piece of clothing starts to fall apart, we try to salvage the buttons. I store them in my decorative canning jars by color.
Being a paper artist, I find many uses for buttons including decorating greeting cards and scrapbook layouts, picture frames, and other pieces of artwork. One time I made Christmas ornament wreaths out of buttons.
Buttons come in many shapes, sizes, and colors, so they are practical for a variety of crafts. Children love to use buttons in artwork.
I remember going to the sewing store with my grandmother when I was a child. Back then, buttons came on little cards. Four to a card for 25 cents. Due to the variety of uses for buttons today, they come in a variety of ways in different price ranges.
Adhering Buttons to Flower Centers
The flowers on the right side of the frame pictured above have button centers. Hot glue works well with this type of craft. Layering flowers and adhering a button in the middle adds dimension.
The National Button Society
Button Country of the National Button Society is an educational website for button collectors and hobbyists. Their button gallery contains 6000 images of buttons.
Types of Materials Used to Make Buttons
Buttons are made from a variety of man-made and natural materials. Here are some materials buttons are made of:
- Black Glass
- Clear and colored glass
- Glass in/on metal
- Shell (iridescent and non-iridescent)
- Synthetic polymers
- Vegetable ivory
Types of Shell Buttons
- Ocean Oyster
- Smoky peal oyster
- Green snail
- Fresh water mussel
Ashlee Buttons are mostly large metal buttons with pictures from the 1940s from old metal stampings.
These buttons caused a great deal of drama among collectors years ago. Dealers in 1948 were turning these new buttons out and selling them as vintage.
Currently, Ashlee Buttons are vintage and have been approved by the National Button Society.
What is Celluloid?
Invented in early 1800s, celluloid is a type of synthetic plastic once used for creating cheaper items such as jewelry, hair accessories, dolls, picture frames, charms, hat pins, buttons, buckles, some musical instrument parts, fountain pens, cutlery handles, and kitchen items.
The materials used to manufacture celluloid were flammable and could damage easily although celluloid is otherwise extremely durable.
Celluloid was used in place of items that were previously manufactured from ivory or horn which were expensive.
Celluloid has also been called "French Ivory".
Celluloid items are collectible today.
Bakelite is used today in place of celluloid.
Table tennis balls and guitar picks are also made from celluloid still today.
Properly Cleaning Old Buttons
Suggested cleaning method
Rub gently with clean polishing cloth.
Rub with lemon wedge dipped in salt.
Clean gently with q-tip soaked in vinegar.
Avoid water. Be extra careful around metal which can rust. Be aware that pictures on celluloid can rub off. Wipe gently with soft cotton cloth.
Fired or glazed can be wiped with damp soft cloth. Unfired or glazed ceramics will be difficult to clean without removing paint or glaze. Wipe those with soft cloth.
Self-shining shoe polish or furniture polish.
Polishing cloth or copper cleaner if no other matierals are incorporated in the button.
Use houshold ammonia on unpainted enamels. Use metal cleaner for metal. Do not use water or silver polish on unfired enamels.
Use soft brush like a make-up brush or keyboard air to remove surface dirt. For stains, use heirloom fabric cleaner and do not soak. Let air dry.
Wipe with soft cloth. May use windex on unpainted surface.
Do not use water. Use mineral oil to polish.
Rub with lemon wedge dipped in salt.
Clean with saddle soap or mineral oil.
Pearl or shell
Unfinished may be washed with gentle soap and water.
Use drummel tool, outer leaf of a head of cabbage or jewelers polishing cloth.
Plastic and synthetic polymers
Use Goo Gone to remove direct sticky substances.
Wipe with make-up brush to remove surface dirt. May use mineral oil, furniture polish, or shoe polish.
Use silver polish but remove all reside from cracks to avoid damage.
Do not clean if steel has tint. Otherwise, use commercial steel polish found in automotive stores. Rust can be removed with steel wool. Apply sealer afterward.
Tin or Zink
Soft cloth only. Do not use water.
Use appropriate metal cleaner.
Do not use water. Polish with Kiwi Leather Balm, furniture polish or mineral oil.
Rub with aluminum foil or drummel tool. Polish with metal polish. See recipe for silver polish.
Do not use water. Use furniture polish or mineral oil. Do not use around metal trim on button as it may destroy the metal.
Use metal polish, drummel tool. Beware of gold leaf buttons as they are fragile and may not survive a cleaning.
Tip About Metal Buttons!
Two-piece metal buttons often have a cardboard disc in the center. Be mindful when cleaning metal buttons as this disc may absorb water and ruin the button.
Create Your Own Silver Polish!
Recipe for silver polish:
- 3 parts baking soda
- 1 part water
- Apply with soft sponge or toothbrush
Create Your own Yellow Metal Cleaner!
Recipe for yellow metal cleaner:
- 1 tablespoon of salt
- 1 tablespoon of flour
- 1 tablespoon of vinegar
- Use a soft cloth to apply the polish.
There are auction companies that appraise buttons and sell them on consignment.
One such company is Page Button Auctions in New York and Florida.
The bird buttons pictured on the right were sold at Page Button Auctions in June 2013 for $160.00.
Buttons have different backings other than the four holes used to sew them on to an article of clothing. Let's explore the different back types through this picture tutorial.
There are over 50 types of button backs.
Did you know that buttons were so collectible?
Obviously not all buttons are valuable. Rare and antique buttons can sell for quite a lot of money. My latest search on eBay pulled up a few buttons that sold for well over $1,000.
Next time you are in an antique store, keep your eye out for buttons!