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Vintage Button Guide - Ways to Identify Antique Buttons

Updated on October 29, 2012

Joined: 6 years agoFollowers: 1,158Articles: 139

I recently purchased 10 pounds of vintage buttons. The seller said they were old but I didn't realize just how old they were. There were many yellow and brown toned buttons that I am pretty sure used to be white. There were buttons ripped off of old clothes, and the small ripped pieces of fabric definitely looked to be from decades past. There were a few that had cracked apart. It looked like they somehow disintegrated and and they had broken off in these weird clumps. There were some that were glass, cloth covered, metal and lots and lots of them made from plastic.

Needless to say, I have been on a mission to identify and learn about the materials these buttons are made of and I've learned lots of great stuff! I figured it was a perfect time to do a vintage button hub. I have always thought buttons were darling and I LOVE using them in craft projects but I really wanted to be for sure that I didn't ruin any buttons that may be of value plus I wanted to know the proper way to clean them. I am sharing with you in this guide, everything I've learned recently while researching antique buttons.

Celluloid Buttons

Celluloid buttons
Celluloid buttons

Celluloid was the very first man made plastic but it wasn't completely synthetic. In the mid 1800's, a British Chemist named Alexander Parkes developed celluloid using cellulose which is derivative of plants, more specifically wood and cotton fibers. Celluloid buttons became very popular during the late 1900s through the 1920s. They can be opaque, transparent or both and they come in all shapes, sizes and colors. Some had metal on the back. Some Celluloids were made to imitate other materials like wood and ivory. Celluloid buttons made to imitate ivory were called Ivoroid. These buttons were used until the 1940s and by that time other buttons were becoming popular. After Celluloid there was another plastic invented by the name of Casein (or Galalith) which was made from a milk protein (Casein) and formaldehyde which Celluloid buttons were also made from. Though it made great buttons there was one downside to Celluoid plastic. The substance is flammable.

***Identifying and cleaning Celluloid Buttons***

To tell if a button is Celluloid, run it under hot water and then smell it. If it smells like Vicks Vapor or mothballs, it is Celluloid. I've read multiple places that these shouldn't be cleaned in water. Most say just to clean off with a soft, dry cloth. Other places have said they can be cleaned with Simichrome polish.

Important Tip:

Do not store Celluloid buttons in airtight containers. They release gases that will disintegrate themselves and other buttons near by. Unfortunately, there is nothing you can do to fix "sick" Celluloid buttons, the best thing to do is dispose of them.

Bakelite Buttons

Bakelite Buttons
Bakelite Buttons

Bakelite was the first completely synthetic plastic which was invented in 1904 by Leo Baekeland but this plastic was not used for making buttons until the 1920s. Bakelite buttons grew in popularity and were very common until the 1940s. Although these are not the first plastic buttons, today they are some of the most sought after and highly collected. They come in all shapes and sizes and are heavier than Celluloid buttons. Bakelite tends to be more opaque than clear. Today any pieces that were clear and have turned very yellow, they refer to as apple juice Bakelite and opaque buttons which have turned very yellow they refer to them as cream corn Bakelite. It was hard to research these buttons without getting hungry!

***Identifying and cleaning Bakelite Buttons***

One way to identify a Bakelite button is to run hot water over it and then smell it. It should have the smell of Formaldehyde. Some say they smell like Cod Liver Oil or have a sweet chemical smell. Another way is to put a bit of Simichrome Metal Polish or 409 All Purpose Cleaner on a Q-tip and rub it on the button. If the Q-tip turns yellow, the button is made from Bakelite. Some places said it's okay to wash these in warm water and mild soap but to make sure to dry thoroughly. Most places have said just to wipe with a clean and dry cloth and some said Simichrome Polish could be used to test the buttons as well as clean them.

Interesting Fact- Bakelite's patent expired in 1927 so the Catalin corporation started making buttons (same as Bakelite) but added 15 more colors. These buttons were called Catalin. It is estimated that 70% of the Bakelite buttons left today are actually Catalin.

Lucite Buttons

Lucite Buttons
Lucite Buttons

Lucite is the trade name of a poly-acrylic resin that was used to make buttons in the 1930s. It was produced by DuPont Plastics. It was low density yet stronger than previous plastics. Like some of the other type plastics, Lucite could be clear or opaque and different colors, shapes and sizes and could also be carved. Some of the old Lucite buttons are very colorful with glitter imbedded in them and some also had rhinestones mounted on them. They were also made into shapes like flowers or animals. Lucite buttons were most popular from the 1930s on through the 1960s. Lucite jewelry was very popular as well.

***Identifying and cleaning Lucite Buttons***

Lucite will have no smell if you run it under hot water and generally stays pretty clear over time. Clean using a soft cloth or mild detergent and water drying them completely.

Vegetable Ivory Buttons

Vegetable Ivory buttons
Vegetable Ivory buttons

Vegetable Ivory is a very dense material that comes from the Corozo nut that grows on the Tague Tree, a type of palm tree. It was named Vegetable Ivory because it resembles real ivory though it is not as heavy. These buttons were first introduced in 1862 at an exposition in Paris, France. Vegetable Ivory became the choice button for men's jackets which was introduced during that time and replaced old dress coats. Their production peaked from 1870 until 1920. The Vegetable Ivory buttons you can find today have a variety of different looks. Some are carved, pressed with fine lined patterns, painted or some have a shiny, mottled look. Some were dyed with other colors and some had cloth or even glass mounted on them. Although plastic buttons have largely taken over, Vegetable Ivory buttons are still manufactured and used today.

***Identifying and Cleaning Vegetable Ivory Buttons***

One way is to look at the material in or around the shank or button holes. You sometimes can see unprocessed materials in or around these holes. When these buttons were dyed, only the outer layers took color so the inside of the button remains the nut's natural color. The buttons were usually dyed before the holes were made. Another way is to look at it under a UV light. Vegetable Ivory will be a warm orange color.

Metal Buttons

Vintage Metal Buttons
Vintage Metal Buttons

Most vintage metal buttons were made from brass or copper. Sterling, Gold or Pewter buttons where much less common. Some brass or copper buttons had a painted or enameled finish. One of the most sought after metal buttons are brass picture buttons from the Victorian era. Some metal buttons were ornamental and some were embossed with patterns or pictures. There are metal buttons from the revolutionary war through the civil war era that were on military uniforms. Many of these have military symbols on them. There are actually many of these metal "picture" type buttons. Sometimes they will have writing on the back. This will help with identifying them.

***Identifying and cleaning Metal Buttons***

You may need to clean them off with a polishing cloth to see what metal they are but be gentle on painted metal buttons so you won't rub the paint off. A button made of pewter will leave a mark on white paper if you scrape it across the paper. There are tons of different pictures on metal buttons. To see which ones are most collectable, look for books or guides on identifying what the pictures represent. Some places said if it is a button made entirely of metal it is okay to wash off with mild detergent but make sure to dry completely as some of these can rust. Others that are made of multiple materials or have enamel overlay's it is best to use a soft cloth to lightly polish.

Glass Buttons

vintage glass buttons
vintage glass buttons

Many black glass buttons were made during the Victorian era. These black colored glass buttons were made to imitate the true jet buttons that Queen Victoria wore during her time of mourning her husband, Price Albert's death.

The majority of glass buttons made during the 20th century were made in what is now Czechoslovakia, handmade by skilled button makers. In 1918 to 1939 popular styles of glass buttons include pictorial, cut crystal and realistics which is like pictorials. Art Deco styles started to appear during the Art Deco period. Through the years the button production slowed and then started again and skilled button makers refined their skills. Some of the most beautiful, colorful glass buttons came from Czechoslovakia. Today many vintage glass buttons are referred to as Czech glass.

***Identifying and cleaning Glass Buttons***

To identify if a button is made from glass or not is to lightly bump it against your tooth or a glass table. It will clink if it is real glass. I've seen several different suggestions to clean these. One was if the button is just plain glass that washing in mild soap and water is fine but the ones that have a iridescent finish or may have a coating, just wipe gently with a soft cloth.

China Buttons

China Buttons
China Buttons | Source

These buttons were sturdy and made for frequently worn clothing like men's work shirts. These were manufactured in Europe, England and also in the United States from the years of 1840 to the 1930s. They were mainly white with sometimes a calico pattern and some had a what looked like a stenciled pattern on them. Some had beautiful paintings on them. They came in all shapes and sizes and could be quite colorful. The patterned China buttons were made to compliment patterned textiles made during that time. They became popular and were not overly expensive.

***Identifying and cleaning China Buttons***

These are all sew through buttons and many had stencil-like patterns or colored decals on them. They have that smooth porcelain feel to them. Many of the older ones from the Victorian era were more plain. Clean using a soft bristled toothbrush and then wipe and polish with a soft cloth.

Mother of Pearl Shell Buttons

Antique Mother of Pearl Shell Buttons
Antique Mother of Pearl Shell Buttons

These buttons have a pretty translucent sheen on them of a rainbow of colors. Some were made to be in their natural state and others were mixed with other materials like rhinestones or metals. Some were dyed and some were painted with images. These buttons feel heavier than other buttons yet some of these could be very thin. The MOP buttons that have intricately carved patterns on them tend to be valuable to button collectors.

***Identifying and cleaning Shell or MOP Buttons***

One way to identify a real MOP button is to put it against your cheek. Real MOP buttons will be very cold against your cheek. Some have noticeable layers of thin ridges or lines on them. On many you can also see brown shell markings on the back. You can clean these using a soft toothbrush and then polishing with a little bit of mineral oil. They say not to wash these with mild soaps and water because it will cause the colorful layer to come off. Using mineral oil and wiping them with a soft cloth will help restore their beautiful luster.

Bone Buttons

Bone buttons
Bone buttons

These were very sturdy carved buttons. Back in the day, there was plenty of bone and it was very easy to carve. Bone was also used to make home décor and hair accessories. They were made from animal bones, mainly cattle. As time went on imitation bone buttons were massed produced but there are ways to tell if it is a authentic bone button. The true old bone buttons will have yellowish to light brown hue to them.

***Identifying and cleaning Bone buttons***

Bone buttons were heavier than plastic buttons. They are comparable to glass buttons as far as weight. They will have uneven holes and inside the holes will be a brownish color. They can have up to three holes but the button holes will not be close together. Many will have two holes widely spaced apart. Bone buttons also have a very dry feel to them. Although the button will feel very smooth, If you look at it with a magnifying glass it should have very tiny small holes all over it. A set of bone buttons will never be the same size, only approximately. The way to clean these buttons is to wipe off with a soft cloth or you can take a lemon and slice it in half and dip it in salt and then rub it on the buttons, wipe with damp cloth and let dry.

Fabric Covered Buttons

Antique Fabric Covered Buttons
Antique Fabric Covered Buttons

The majority of vintage cloth covered buttons were round and they came in all sizes from very tiny to super large. They were made in different colors as well as different patterns and types of fabrics. There were also buttons that were made from leather, shank and all. You can pretty much identify a fabric covered button.

***Cleaning Fabric Covered Buttons***

The important thing is if you clean it, be very careful not to to scrub on the fibers. Vintages fabrics can disintegrate easily. It is suggested to slosh them around in a container with mild soap and water without any scrubbing, rinse well and pat dry. Then finish drying them completely with a hair dryer on low or no heat or set them outside to air dry.

****Cleaning Antique or Vintage Buttons in General***

It's best to take the safest route when cleaning vintage buttons. Just about every source recommended a dry soft cloth for most of the buttons. Some places said NO water at all and others said it was okay to use it on some. The suggestions I wrote were just a compilation of suggestions from several different sites. One of the most in depth and detailed guides I found about how to clean antique buttons is a PDF file which you can download and print from Button Images.com which is a top site for button collectors. You can get the PDF here. They also have a great and very detailed PDF on how to identify all types of antique buttons. Go have a look!

grahics courtesy of Ruthenia-Alba via Deviant Art
grahics courtesy of Ruthenia-Alba via Deviant Art

There are other types of vintage buttons but I've covered many of them. I need to add that I am not a button expert- not at all. This is just the information I have found through my own research from what I felt were trusted antique button resources. The photos are actual photos of the buttons I recently acquired. If anyone reads this that has experience with antique buttons I would love to hear from you and get your input.

Thanks for reading and happy button collecting!

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    • Lynda @ spiritofgrace4959@yahoo.com 9 days ago

      I have a Victorian high quality vest with hunting scene brass backed buttons Sure would like to know their worth and where to sell them. there are six of them

    • Sandy 5 weeks ago

      I have a lot of vintage buttons. Is there anywhere in Tucson or Phoenix where I can take some to find out what they are worth?

    • Anna 7 weeks ago

      Nancy Smith, I am a button collector and love every button I have. study for age, material etc. I also give button shows and love to tell about them. Do you have a price you want for them?

      saharv23@gmail.com

    • Nancy S. Smith 7 weeks ago

      I have many buttons collected by my grandfather who died in 1948. I know nothing about the buttons and will not have time to study. I have terminal cancer and would like them to go to someone who appreciates them rather than the rubbish. Who would I contact? (I would really appreciate knowing what todo with these. I am not sure if any are valuablr

    • Gail 3 months ago

      I have some red leather buttons with a leather shank, I think they came from Germany, is there any value to them?

    • Rachelle 3 months ago

      My mom and I recently purchased 5 gallons of assorted buttons from a store that was opened in 19-teens and closed sometime in the last couple if years. The buttons were saved over the years by the seamstresses that worked there. We have thousands of buttons of all the sorts you listed here plus rubber, paper and so far unidentifiable materials. Our work is certainly cut out. We have not cleaned any as when we are finished sorting, we will leave that job to the future owners. Age patina is often an asset to vintage items and we did not know if buttons are the same. Thank you for the warning on celluloid, we will now be punching holes in the plastic baggies we have been using for matches. There certainly are some wonderful buttons in our massive collection. We will be creating a website for our collection when we have finished putting it in order. (Identifying the different types of plastic is looking to be an enormous undertaking) thank you again for thd information and also for tge references to other resources.

    • Wendy, UK 3 months ago

      Thanks for your button blog, I've just started to appreciate the different types so this info was really helpful. Wish I'd read it before I washed a batch of mixed material buttons last night, though.

    • Joy 4 months ago

      I have a button marked Burton 1904. Can you tell me about it?

    • mike 4 months ago

      I am doing an jewelry appraisal on some antique hand carved buttons made out of Jet from an old military uniform. I have no idea what to value them at. They are very cool. Jet in general is a great material. Any info? Thanks.

    • beetleb2@telus.net 5 months ago

      I have a number of older metal, leather covered, and unusual buttons... who might be interested in buying the lot? Any contact information appreciated.

    • Tina 7 months ago

      Hi, Thank You for all the information posted. I was recently awarded a lot of buttons from a NJ based company I believe to be from the later 1920's They are on original boards from salesman(most of them) and are samples. Some are loose. I want to sell them, but dont know the best place to post them and am a bit overwhelmed with prices and where to start. I know some are pearl, but believe most are plastic, some shell, maybe coconut and wood. I really think they are knock offs of greater styles and may not be worth much, but still important to those who craft. Any info would be wonderful. Thanks

    • Judith Ierlan 8 months ago

      A good site! Have you seen rubber type buttons? Where should I go for appraisals on my buttons? Is there a price list. Thank you

    • Jamie Brock profile image
      Author

      Jamie Brock 9 months ago from Texas

      No problem Gus.. my leg needs a good pulling now and again!!

    • GusTheRedneck profile image

      Gustave Kilthau 9 months ago from USA

      Ms Jamie - My apologies for wording that last comment of mine as I did. Perhaps I should have explained that the "missing button" was impossible to properly record in a photograph - or, for that matter, as a verbal description. It was "missing" and, this, incapable of being recorded or described. It was on my shirtfront the day before it went into the laundry, but it was gone the day I tried to button my shirt. Being as careless as I am about my apparel, I cannot even remember the color of the shirt, much less of that missing button.

      In other words, I was "pulling your leg."

      Regards (and keep smiling),

      Gus

    • Jamie Brock profile image
      Author

      Jamie Brock 9 months ago from Texas

      GusTheRedneck- Hi there! I do apologize on the delayed response.I am not on HP as much as I would like to be recently. About the photo..I seem to have missed it. Did you forward it through a comment? Please let me know. I would love to help you out if I can! Thank you and hope you are having a great day :)

    • GusTheRedneck profile image

      Gustave Kilthau 9 months ago from USA

      Jamie - I was reminded to inquire - what did you think of the photo of the missing button I forwarded to you?

      Regards,

      Gus

    • Jamie Brock profile image
      Author

      Jamie Brock 9 months ago from Texas

      Thank you Ben! I appreciate the info.

    • Jamie Brock profile image
      Author

      Jamie Brock 9 months ago from Texas

      nancy j- Could they be wooden and white? I'm not sure. Hopefully you found out what they are.Thank you so much for dropping by!

    • Jamie Brock profile image
      Author

      Jamie Brock 9 months ago from Texas

      Thank you jc..I'm glad you enjoyed the hub and thank you for your input!

    • Jamie Brock profile image
      Author

      Jamie Brock 9 months ago from Texas

      Karleen...how neat that you have your Grandmas button collection! Thank you so much for stopping by and for your comment!

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