Tuesday, May 17, 2011
FOR THE LOVE OF BUTTONS
Why are so many people intrigued by buttons? Some have fond childhood memories of sorting through Grandmother's button jar or box and being mesmerized by the myriad of colors, shapes and textures. Buttons were generally saved for utilitarian purposes, for they could be used again and again. Even when a garment wore out, the buttons were usually cut off before the item was discarded. The fact that most families had a plentiful store of buttons led to the beginning of button collecting in the United States in the 1930's, as an antidote to the Depression. It was said by one collector that during the Depression there were more buttons than pennies.
Serious button collecting began much earlier in Europe. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, fashionable people collected miniatures and small antiquities, including buttons. There were some extraordinary ones to collect, because during certain points in history, buttons were as important as jewelry. In 18th century journals, royalty and dandies were described as outshining each other by the quantity and sparkle of the buttons they wore. Buttons symbolized wealth, rank, and social standing. Private commissions were made for large, magnificent buttons fashioned with semi-precious stones and metals; embroidered with gold and silver bullion; which were finely painted by miniaturists and then mounted under glass with gold, silver, or copper rims. Other methods used at this time were enameling, etching, and tapestry. It is no wonder that this period of time is considered the golden age of buttons.
The Industrial Revolution and emergence of the middle class had a profound effect on button fashion and manufacturing. Button sizes decreased, styles became less flamboyant, and both men and women wore them. Many buttons were mass produced because of new technology. Manufacturers made metal buttons with cast or stamped pictorial designs, known as picture buttons. This type of button is very much sought after now.
As clothing styles became simpler during the 20th century, so did buttons. Five-and-dime retailers began selling cards of buttons. New and less expensive materials were developed, such as the plastic, Bakelite. It is interesting to note that Bakelite, which was once regarded as cheap, has become valuable to collectors.
Fine art is considered to be a reflection of society at the time it was created. Such is the case with buttons. They are small artifacts that document the fashion trends, economics, and developments in technology and industry of the period in which they were made. Collecting buttons is like gathering bits of history. Besides, it is such fun seeking and sorting through them. I suppose one could say that buttons give us a link to our own past as well; to a time when one went through Grandmother's cache and felt the first stirring of a passion for buttons.