A Brief History of Buttons
In this post, I’ll go over a brief history of buttons, button storage, and types of buttons. I love buttons. Before I started sewing, I used to work at an antique shop, and I would just bring home cool buttons because I couldn't pass them up. I didn't even have a use for them--I just wanted them to be mine. There's something about buttons that makes you want to hoard them.
How Buttons Changed Fashion
I recently saw this Ted Talk on buttons from designer Isaac Mizrahi, which sheds some light on why buttons are so fascinating. Before we had buttons, clothing was very drapey and flowy--think of togas and such. Buttons allowed clothing to become more form-fitting and to move in closer to the body.
Button Storage: The Cookie Tin Unites Us All
Speaking of hoarding buttons, what do you think is in this cookie tin?
It turns out that nearly all of us have a mother or grandmother who kept sewing supplies in this tin. A post on Reddit's Shower Thoughts had this to say, "A whole generation of women collectively decided, without the help of the internet, to use cookie tins for storing sewing supplies." In the thread for this post, people from around the world chimed in, noting that their grandmas all did this.
This piece on NPR explores the this cultural universal further and this one on Atlas Obscura explores what readers have found in Royal Dansk cookie tins. It turns out that the most commonly stored item is sewing supplies, followed by buttons.
My Grandma kept buttons in this blue cookie tin. People who grew up during the Great Depression saved everything that might have a use someday. Why buy buttons if you could save some off your old, worn out clothing? There were a lot of plain, utilitarian buttons in the tin, but there were some fancy ones, too. I loved going through it and asking her about them. She seemed to know where they all came from!
This urge to reuse and repurpose also explains why the tins are so ubiquitous. Why would you throw out a perfectly good tin? And what would fit in that tin? It's not a huge tin, but it's not super tiny, either. It's just the right size for some sewing supplies.
I decided to keep some of my own buttons in one of the tins that I saved from my post on making earrings with vintage tins. It's around the same size as the Royal Dansk cookie tin, and I like how it looks. Who knows? Maybe it even came with cookies at one point.
The Surprising Artistry of Button Cards
I started a button board on Pinterest, containing mostly vintage buttons, but also featuring some button projects and ideas. Not only have I come across a lot of wonderful vintage buttons, but I've also discovered how amazing some old button cards were.
I've actually been on the lookout for some of my favorite button cards that I first saw on Pinterest, and I recently managed to find them. Sometimes the cards are more interesting than the buttons. I wish button cards were still designed like this. The card is half the fun!
I love the button cards that strategically place the buttons where they would go on a man's shirt. What a dapper looking golfer!
This guy is missing most of his buttons, but I think I'll probably try to fill in the rest with similar buttons.
This poor guy got decapitated, but he's still got all of his buttons!
This one is on the simpler side, but it still has a pleasing Art Nouveau-y design.
My favorite button cards have people on them, like this elegant lady.
There are also some cool landscape button cards.
All of these button cards have fairly simple buttons, so I imagine that this was a way to make plain buttons more appealing. I haven't seen any really fancy buttons on these illustrated cards.
Do you need a way to display your cool button cards? See my post on turning a picture frame into a tray to display vintage sewing cards, needle books, and notions.
See also my post on bizarre vintage sewing ads for more examples of fun graphic designs related to sewing.
Collecting and Storing Buttons
Here are some of my favorite buttons. I store them in this tray so that I can admire them all. I like my button tin as well, but it's not as useful for displaying buttons.
Here are a few of my favorites out of the tray. These are probably from the 20s or 30s. Egyptian motifs were popular after Tutankhamun's tomb was rediscovered in 1922. Fun fact: the guy who funded the expedition that explored the tomb was Lord Carnarvon, who also owned Highclere Castle, the estate where Downton Abbey was filmed.
These are steel and carved shell. I'm not sure of their exact age, but I'd guess they're of a similar age to the Egyptian buttons.
I also have a nice tingue button. These were made in the mid-1800s and featured a layer of reflective foil between layers of glass. They're kind of rare, as they tend to get broken easily.
These are some Victorian black glass buttons. After Queen Victoria's husband died, black was very fashionable, so you'll see a lot of black jewelry and buttons from this era.
And here are some glass buttons with sparkly aventurine swirls.
This one is a modern reproduction of a vintage Czech glass button, but I still love it.
There are a lot of reproduction Czech glass buttons online, so be aware that you're probably not getting actual vintage buttons, even if the listing says they're vintage. Still, they're beautiful buttons, and many of them use the same molds and designs as vintage buttons. Check out all the cool Czech glass buttons on Ebay and all of the fun Lady Washington buttons on Ebay.
If you want to make some projects with your buttons check out these cool free patterns from All Free Sewing!