Have you recently run into a pile of old buttons? While it doesn’t seem too easy to identify whether they’re unique antiques or a pile of old junk, there is a way to identify valuable old buttons.
To determine if your button is worth anything, you’ll need to look for a lack of uniformity that points to it being handcrafted. The older the button, the more likely it was uniquely made as opposed to machine-made. You can also look for buttons made of metal, bone, glass, ivory, porcelain, or wood covered in fabric, as they’re likely older and more valuable.
This article will help us learn more about how to identify valuable old buttons.
1. The History of Buttons
Buttons came about in the 13th century, replacing the brooches and clasps that were used before them to pin clothes together. There are two types of buttons; standard ones which help fasten clothes and nonutilitarian buttons which are decorative.
Most buttons seen early on in medieval Europe were used in a practical sense. They were created by hand from many materials and, by the 1300s, began to be used as ornaments aligning the arms and chests of different clothes.
During these times, you could show off your social class by using expensive buttons made from gold, silver, copper, or ivory. Those in working or lower classes used wooden or bone buttons instead, which could also be covered with fabric depending on the design. This soon led to embroidered buttons which added a more detailed design.
Buttons developed along with the trending styles over the years. By the 1700s, luxury metals were used in combination with embroidered buttons as the most fashionable items. You could even get stamped buttons made from a metal called pewter. Pewter buttons are especially rare nowadays.
Brass buttons also became an important part of military outfits, and a century later these buttons began to incorporate steel.
In the early 19th century, a Danish manufacturer named B. Sanders was able to enclose a piece of fabric between two metal discs, creating the first two-shell metal button. These buttons tend to have two holes in the center. In this same era, buttons began to be manufactured mechanically.
The design and materials of vintage buttons range greatly, and they are very distinct from the plastic buttons we use and see today. You could find porcelain buttons in France, glass buttons in the present-day Czech Republic (then Bohemia), and ceramic buttons in Japan.
By the 20th century, zippers began to replace buttons, but we still see many today for both useful and decorative purposes.
2. Early Manufacturers of Old Buttons
The oldest and most valuable buttons were not manufactured, but hand-made by artisans and craftsmen. Most button manufacturing companies came about in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Dupont Plastics originated as the DuPont Company in 1802 in Delaware, USA. It created the first batch of Lucite buttons. These were made with poly-acrylic resin from the 1930s to the 1960s. Some of these buttons even had glitter or rhinestones in and on them.
Firmin & Sons was a British company that produced buttons from 1655. They supplied mostly military ceremonial buttons at this time.
Firmin & Sons continues to be active in England and is currently one of the oldest companies in the world.
J R Gaunt was known for manufacturing enameled and button badges in the 18th century. Most of their buttons were also made for the army.
The Gaunt company resided in London until the 1930s when it became a part of the Royal Mint.
Jennens and Company Limited began producing buttons in the 1860s as Messrs Jennens & Co. They were known to print buttons with the image of the Prince of Wales plume on the back, which was a trademark of the company.
Jennens merged with J R Gaunt in 1924.
Armfield & Co. Limited began in the late 18th century, initially listed as a button maker in Birmingham. They were known for their livery buttons which had intricate designs.
The Waterbury Button Company was established in the U.S. in 1812. They pride themselves on making some of the most popular metal buttons that were initially used for the U.S. military, as seen on General Ulysses Grant himself.
They’ve manufactured over 40,000 buttons and currently supply buttons to big brands like Ralph Lauren and Brooks Brothers.
3. How Do You Identify Old Buttons?
With a little practice and the help of this article, you’ll be able to identify old buttons through their material and design.
You can also identify an old button by searching for signs that it is handmade. This would include a lack of uniformity and machine-made mold lines.
The main materials antique buttons will be made of are:
- Metal: 16thcentury to 21st century
- Bone: 17thand 18th centuries
- Glass: 1830s to 20thcentury
- Vegetable ivory: 1862 to the 1920s
- Porcelain: 19thto 20th centuries
- Fabric-covered: early 19thcentury to 21st century
- Mother of Pearl (MOP) shell: late 19thcentury to early 20th century
- Bakelite: 1904 to the 1940s
- Celluloid: 1900 to the 1940s
- Lucite: 1930s to the 1960s
Identify Old Metal Buttons
Metal buttons are one of the first types of buttons that were used. You can find them in brass, copper, sterling silver, gold, or pewter, although the first two are most common. Sterling buttons will likely say “sterling” or have the number “925” on the back.
These buttons could be plain, painted, enameled, or ornamental. Many had pictures from the Victorian era. Others have writing on the back to help identify their age.
If your metal button has a picture, you’ll need to sift through a guidebook or have it appraised to know where it may come from.
Identify Old Bone Buttons
Usually made from cow or pig, the bone is soaked, softened, then separated into sheets to make buttons.
You can tell that a button is made of bone because it’s yellow or light brown, very dry, and will have tiny dark marks that look like splinters (unless it’s been bleached). If you scrape a bone button, it will produce a powder.
These weigh more than plastic buttons and each button has a unique size and shape. Holes are also widely spaced apart.This video gives more information on how to identify bone buttons.
Identify Old Glass Buttons
Glass buttons are tied to either the Victorian era (1837-1901) or the 20th century. Many from the Victorian era will be black.
Twentieth-century glass buttons were mainly made in what is now the Czech Republic. You may find them with Art Deco styles, which is a style from the 1920s-1930s that used strong geometric shapes and colors.
To make sure your button is glass, lightly tap it against a glass table and listen for the clink.
Identify Old Ivory Buttons
You can find antique buttons in both ivory and vegetable ivory. Ivory is made from the tusk of an animal – usually an elephant – while vegetable ivory is made from the ivory nut’s endosperm.
To identify real ivory, you can heat a needle until it’s bright red and poke the button. Plastic will melt, while real ivory will remain firm. Ivory is often confused for bone and is much rarer than vegetable ivory.
As for vegetable ivory, pay close attention to the buttonholes. If you see unprocessed materials around a hole, such as a part that is a different color, it may be vegetable ivory. This is because these buttons were dyed before they were colored. Vegetable ivory will also be orange under a UV light.
Identify Old Porcelain Buttons
Many porcelain buttons come from either France or Asia. They were usually decorated by a hand painting with an intricate design, gaining popularity between 1860 and 1900.
Many of these will have floral patterns with different flower varieties. Most are fastened to clothes with a stud instead of shanks or being sewn on.
Porcelain is thinner, lighter, and more stain-resistant than pottery. It’s usually very smooth and white on the backside. If it’s chipped, you can run your finger along the chip to see how hard the grain is.
Identify Old Fabric-Covered Buttons
Cloth buttons were usually a fabric stretched over a bone, wood, or metal button base. Most fabric from the 19th century has since deteriorated, leaving behind only the material underneath; however, some fabric-covered buttons from the early 20th century are still in circulation.
These buttons will usually display an Art Nouveau or Art Deco style. Art Nouveau is characterized by linear designs and curves based on natural forms.
You can also feel the button and check the back to see what material it has underneath. If lacks uniformity, the button might have been handmade, dating it back further.
Identify Old MOP Buttons
MOP buttons are made from an inner layer of a shell, usually from an oyster or mussel. Their natural color is a shiny, pearly finish, which is easily identifiable among other materials. You might have seen MOP on pieces of jewelry.
Some are translucent and natural while others are mixed with metals or rhinestones, dyed, or painted. Many are very thin.
If you place a MOP button against your forearm or cheek, you’ll notice that it will be very cold. It’ll also have noticeable ridges.
Identify Old Bakelite Buttons
Bakelite buttons are similar to celluloid but heavier. They often come in opaque colors. Original transparent Bakelite buttons are very old and will be yellow by now.
You can identify this type of button by putting some all-purpose cleaner on a cotton ball or Q-tip, rubbing the button, and seeing if the cotton turns yellow.
Antique Bakelite buttons are a bit harder to find because the Catalin Corporation bought out their patent in 1927 and started making the same buttons in 15 other colors. These are technically Catalin buttons, although they’re made of the same material as Bakelite buttons.
Identify Old Celluloid Buttons
Celluloid can be considered the first created plastic, although it was made from cellulose which comes from plants. These buttons can be see-through or colored and are found in all shapes and sizes.
To identify this material, cover it with hot water, remove it, then smell it. If you smell something similar to mothballs, it is a celluloid button. These buttons are also flammable, but we don’t recommend risking damage to the button by putting it under a flame.
If celluloid buttons are stored in airtight spaces, they will disintegrate.
Identify Old Lucite Buttons
Lucite buttons were specifically made by Dupont Plastics, so you’ll want to look out for any maker’s marks on the back of the button. These buttons come in all colors and sizes, and some are clear. Others also have glitter or rhinestones.
Lucite has no smell under hot water and the transparent buttons will remain clear over time.
4. Old Buttons Value
The most valuable antique buttons will be at least 100 years old, created before 1920. The value of old buttons ranges from $30 to over $1,500.
To value a button, you’ll want to identify the material it’s made out of, look for unique designs, and – if possible – learned where and when it originated from.
Valuing the Materials
If your button seems to be made of synthetic plastic, it’s likely modern and not worth much. Even celluloid buttons, which are some of the oldest plastic buttons, have a lower value compared to porcelain, ceramic, MOP, wood, metal, glass, or bone buttons.
If your button has any precious metals in it, such as gold, brass, steel, silver, or pewter, you’ve found a valuable piece. The same is said if your button incorporates any gems or jewels, such as rubies or the like.
In this list of 10 of the rarest and most expensive buttons, you’ll see that they all incorporate precious metals and/or gems.
Valuing the Design
Buttons with intricate designs are bound to sell for more than a plain colored button. These could be one-of-a-kind paintings of country scenes, portraits, animals, or flowers. You may even see creative designs like mythical or mystical creatures.
Look for designs from the Victorian era, which include symbols of love and sentiment associated with Queen Victoria. Anything hand-painted is seen as more unique.
Art Nouveau designs are also valued higher, showcasing decorative designs with intricate linear designs. Also, look out for Art Deco with its prominent shapes and strong colors.
Designs with slight errors, inconsistencies, or a lack of symmetry could point to an artisanal button of a greater value.
Hand-carved designs are also very valuable. These are usually done on bone or shell. You’ll notice a slight lack of uniformity, attesting to its hand-carved origin.
Other buttons could also have additions like stones or shells. You may even be so lucky as to find two valuable materials fused together – like a metal button enameled with colored glass.
Valuing the Origin
Some buttons have clues on the back that can point to their manufacturer or date of creation. How the button attaches to the cloth could also tie it to a certain century or time period. The material the button is made of will also serve as a clue.
5. Different Types of Old Buttons That Are Worth Money
To give you an idea of the value of certain old buttons, let’s take a look at some antique buttons on the market.
- Plique-A-Jour button, green and white enamel, set in silver, 19thcentury: $1,850
- Celluloid female golfer button, brown and cream, the 1930s: $89.95
- Czechoslovakia black glass buttons, heart shape, the 1950s: $155
- MOP button, Art Deco, unknown year: $62.99
- 2 Bakelite or Catalin carved buttons, unknown year: $200
As you can see above, the most expensive buttons tend to have an intricate design or precious metals or jewels.
6. Where to Buy Valuable Old Buttons
You can buy antique, valuable buttons online or in person.
In-person options include your local antique shop or an antique auction. My personal favorite is to go searching for antiques at local flea markets or garage sales, as many people sell vintage items – buttons included – without knowing they’re valuable.
Online searches for antique buttons are even easier, with buttons available on eBay, Craigslist, Etsy, and online auction houses. You will need to be careful with these platforms, however, as there’s no way to make sure the button is exactly how it’s described before purchasing it.
If you’d like to connect with other button enthusiasts, look out for big events like the National Button Convention. You can also search for local interest groups around the subject, such as your nearest chapter of the National Button Society.
7. How Can I Collect Valuable Buttons?
Now that you’ve gained some knowledge on which buttons are the most valuable, you are well on your way to starting your own button collections.
First, you’ll need to pinpoint which types of antique buttons you want to collect. This could be from a certain period, of a particular material, or specific designs. Set aside a space to keep your buttons and be sure you research how to keep them clean and collectible.
Then, start thrifting or antiquing to find the buttons for your collection. Verify your purchases with other button collectors or appraisers and enjoy.
Vintage or antique buttons can be found at markets, online, or in storage garages and attics. If you’ve come across a handful of buttons and are wondering what they’re worth, look out for buttons made of ivory, metals, bone, glass, ceramic, or porcelain.
If you find a button with silver, gold, or copper, the value increases significantly. Value can also be added by detailed hand-painted designs or vintage fabric covers.
Whether you’re a button collector or just want to add the buttons to your newest outfit, there are plenty of beautiful antique buttons to be found!