Vintage Button Guide: Ways to Identify Antique Buttons
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 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 write a vintage button article. 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 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 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 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 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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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!