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All About Collecting, Storing, and Cleaning Buttons

I am an avid button collector, and I enjoy sharing what I have learned about the hobby with other enthusiasts online.

My button collection

My button collection

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.

I store my buttons in canning jars.

I store my buttons in canning jars.

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.

Celluloid Buttons

Store alone. Over time, they can corrode metal buttons. Ideally, mount on acid-free cards.

Plastic Buttons

Plastic buttons can build up fumes in an enclosed air-tight container. These are best stored in places with consistent temperature and low humidity.

Buttons in an old-fashioned cookie jar

Buttons in an old-fashioned cookie jar

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 MuseumsLocationNumber of Buttons on Display

Victoria and Albert Museum

London

Searchable online database with over 1 million button results

Smithsonian Institution

Washington, DC, USA

Over 500

Mattatuck Museum, Button Gallery

Waterbury, CT, USA

3,000

Keep Homestead Museum

Monson, MA, USA

Several thousands cards of buttons

The Button Room

Gurnee, IL, USA

Unknown

Metropolitan Museum of Art

New York, NY, USA

Over 1,000

Golf Club Button Collection

Toms River, NJ, USA

Almost 1,000

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.

Quick "frame" craft using buttons as flower centers.

Quick "frame" craft using buttons as flower centers.

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:

  • Celluloid
  • Ceramic
  • China
  • Enamels
  • Fabrics
  • Black Glass
  • Clear and colored glass
  • Glass in/on metal
  • Horn
  • Metals
  • Shell (iridescent and non-iridescent)
  • Synthetic polymers
  • Vegetable ivory
  • Wood
Owl button made from shell

Owl button made from shell

Types of Shell Buttons

  • Abalone
  • Ocean Oyster
  • Smoky peal oyster
  • Green snail
  • Fresh water mussel
  • Nautilus
buttons-and-their-values

Ashlee Buttons

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.

Celluloid

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

MaterialSuggested cleaning method

Acrylic

Rub gently with clean polishing cloth.

Bone

Rub with lemon wedge dipped in salt.

Brass

Clean gently with q-tip soaked in vinegar.

Celluloid

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.

Ceramic

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.

Composition

Self-shining shoe polish or furniture polish.

Copper

Polishing cloth or copper cleaner if no other matierals are incorporated in the button.

Enamels

Use houshold ammonia on unpainted enamels. Use metal cleaner for metal. Do not use water or silver polish on unfired enamels.

Fabric

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.

Glass

Wipe with soft cloth. May use windex on unpainted surface.

Horn

Do not use water. Use mineral oil to polish.

Ivory

Rub with lemon wedge dipped in salt.

Leather

Clean with saddle soap or mineral oil.

Pearl or shell

Unfinished may be washed with gentle soap and water.

Pewter

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.

Rubber

Wipe with make-up brush to remove surface dirt. May use mineral oil, furniture polish, or shoe polish.

Silver

Use silver polish but remove all reside from cracks to avoid damage.

Steel

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

Baking soda

Turqouise

Soft cloth only. Do not use water.

Uniform buttons

Use appropriate metal cleaner.

Vegetable Ivory

Do not use water. Polish with Kiwi Leather Balm, furniture polish or mineral oil.

White metal

Rub with aluminum foil or drummel tool. Polish with metal polish. See recipe for silver polish.

Wood

Do not use water. Use furniture polish or mineral oil. Do not use around metal trim on button as it may destroy the metal.

Yellow 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.
buttons-and-their-values

Button Appraisals

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.


Button Backs

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.

buttons-and-their-values
buttons-and-their-values
National Button Society, Button Gallery, has a complete list of button backs.

National Button Society, Button Gallery, has a complete list of button backs.

buttons-and-their-values

Conclusion

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!

Comments

mellisa Gray on April 17, 2019:

I find this article so helpful I have been bitten by the button bug and bought so many jars of them when we were on out vacation out to the east coast. I buy and sell old buttons and now know better how to clean and store them

Barbara on March 18, 2019:

Re containers for celluloid buttons (which may give off fumes), could plastic containers suitable, which have several holes in the plastic lid? Thank you for a wonderful resource for information on vintage buttons.

Bill on September 14, 2018:

I have a old button and would like to know it's value. It's gold in color and heavy

Spotter on March 26, 2018:

Great article . Thanks

bargainfinder on May 25, 2015:

this is fascinating! Ive inherited several button boxes over the years so now going through to try to identify what I've got!

CraftytotheCore (author) on January 09, 2014:

Hello Bakelite Babe and welcome! Thank you for all of those great tips and information.

bakelite babe on January 04, 2014:

Actually only one type ( one look ) of celluloid was called french ivory. It was meant to imitate the expensive material it was named for. This type of celluloid is cream toned with little lines in a darker shade. Also table tennis balls r no longer made of celluoid, celluloid balls were never sucessfully made and production ended early on due to their tendency to explode upon impact. Also bakelite is no longer being produced, it ceased mid 1960s. Other materials of buttons that u might not be aware of are bakelite and lucite.

CraftytotheCore (author) on October 09, 2013:

Hi purl! I didn't even know there was a special way to care for them. I'm so glad I found out because some of the ones I have are very delicate.

CraftytotheCore (author) on October 09, 2013:

Thank you Moonlake! We have a really nice antique center in Putnam, Connecticut. It's downsized a lot from what it used to be. But there are a few nice stores still there. Once in a while I like to take a trip. It takes about an hour. I always find something to bring back home with me.

Donna Herron from USA on October 09, 2013:

I don't really "collect" buttons, but I do go to great lengths to find the right buttons for each of my knitting projects. Thanks for the information on how to clean vintage buttons. I've inherited my great aunt's button box and now I know how to take care of them :)

moonlake from America on October 08, 2013:

Very interesting hub. I love buttons and I do collect them but I don't have loads of them. I collect what I happen to see at yard sales. Voted up on your hub and shared.

CraftytotheCore (author) on August 20, 2013:

Hi Seanorjohn! I've noticed our local thrift store will gather a bunch of buttons and sell them in a vase for $10. I've never made it up to the counter in time though, someone always gets to them before me.

Speaking of games, yes, I made up a bingo game for my children when they were younger. We used buttons as the markers for the bingo cards.

seanorjohn on August 20, 2013:

This is such a brilliant article. I always enjoyed playing various games with buttons as a child. You have inspired me to start up a collection and to look more closely at charity shop clothing to hunt down unusual buttons. Voted up.

CraftytotheCore (author) on August 20, 2013:

Thank you Suzie! I had heard before that you can clean jewelry with toothpaste. I knew there were some things you could clean with lemon juice. But I had no idea buttons were so delicate and had to be cleaned in certain ways depending on the material they are made from.

Suzanne Ridgeway from Dublin, Ireland on August 20, 2013:

Hi CraftytotheCore.

What an incredibly detailed article on all the different types of buttons, even homemade cleaners! Amazing amount of work in this which i found fascinating so interesting! Congrats on a superb job!

Voted up, useful, awesome, interesting, shared!

CraftytotheCore (author) on August 20, 2013:

Awesome EP! That would be fun. An HP reunion! :)

Elizabeth Parker from Las Vegas, NV on August 20, 2013:

I'd love to meet up. I wish all of us on HP could get together. I'll be there in October ! :)

CraftytotheCore (author) on August 20, 2013:

While you are in NY, drive down 95. I'm about 2 hours from NY. We can do lunch! :)

Elizabeth Parker from Las Vegas, NV on August 20, 2013:

I guess it makes total sense because many of the fasteners that I buy at Michaels look like buttons. I know my mom has a jar from way back when we were all younger- always losing buttons. I'm going to check 'em out next time I'm in NY!

CraftytotheCore (author) on August 20, 2013:

I know right EP! The hard part for me is determining which ones in my collection are vintage. Some of them are actually made to look vintage nowadays.

Elizabeth Parker from Las Vegas, NV on August 20, 2013:

Oh gosh- and I have been throwing them away all of these years. I could've made some money!! :) I had no idea!

CraftytotheCore (author) on August 20, 2013:

Hi Stephanie! Thank you! I save buttons too. My grandmother sewed everything when I was growing up. I still have her vintage blue glass dish she brought up to CT from West Virginia in which she stored her bobbins for her sewing machine.

CraftytotheCore (author) on August 20, 2013:

Thank you vocalcoach! When I started looking around on the internet, I was amazed at all the clubs that are out there. A lot of states have their own button clubs. I didn't even know there was a button museum in my own state! LOL

Stephanie Henkel from USA on August 20, 2013:

I always save buttons just because of my frugal nature. Your article is so interesting and informative! I never knew how many different materials were used for buttons, or that different kinds should be stored differently. All the photographs and tables really add interest and eye appeal to your hub...great job! Voted up and pinned!

Audrey Hunt from Idyllwild Ca. on August 19, 2013:

What a fascinating and informative hub this is. I've enjoyed it in its entirety. I love buttons. Had no idea there could be so much to writ about. Thanks a million. Voted up, useful, awesome, interesting and will pin and share. ~ Audrey

CraftytotheCore (author) on August 19, 2013:

Hi EP! One time I was looking on eBay to find a few small white buttons. I noticed people were making a living selling buttons. I had no idea they can be so valuable. It makes me think twice about which ones I stick on a greeting card with hot glue! LOL

CraftytotheCore (author) on August 19, 2013:

Hi Joe! There are so many things to learn about eBay. I think we all could write articles and still never answer every question about that selling venue. Billy has excellent writing advice. I've learned a lot since starting on here a couple of months ago.

Elizabeth Parker from Las Vegas, NV on August 19, 2013:

I will say this- I had no idea people collected buttons! And definitely did not know there was a museum. Ironically, since I make jewelry and sometimes create greeting cards, I started collecting buttons but when I say collecting, I mean I have about two of them. LOL! I figured I might be able to use them somewhere but haven't figured out where yet. Now I know! Thanks for posting!

Hawaiian Odysseus from Southeast Washington state on August 19, 2013:

Good for you, CTTC, for utilizing what Billy's been teaching us! I commend you on that wise choice and application.

Your hub was fascinating. From time to time, I pick up information here on HP that helps me to write more authoritative eBay listings. In that regard, your article is very helpful to me. Thanks for sharing!

Aloha!

~Joe

CraftytotheCore (author) on August 19, 2013:

Thank you Billy! After reading your Hub about introductions, I actually went back and changed this one before I published it! So thank you for the tips!

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on August 19, 2013:

I guess I kind of knew there were button collectors, but I had no idea the money that was involved in these collections. This is not my thing but I still found your article fascinating, and that, my friend, is the mark of a good writer. :)