at the Buttons!
Buttons have a varied
and colorful history. Depending on who
you ask, they were invented by the Chinese,
or the French, or even cave men. (We tend
to go with the Chinese, since they invented
a lot of stuff we take for granted today --
like fireworks and silk and spaghetti!)
Buttons weren't really
necessary, however, when clothes were primarily
large sacks that were put on over the head,
or large pieces of cloth draped over the body.
It was in the 1300s that more fitted waistlines
and even sleeves came into vogue -- and somebody
had to find a way to make it possible to get
in and out of clothing without the help of three
or four other people and a lot of aggravation.
There are also a lot
of stories about how men's jackets came to have
buttons on the sleeves. Most of them,
however, have one thing in common: Noses!
Here's the official
U.S. Navy explanation:
bone buttons that are today sewn on many suit
jackets, sports coats and blazers began as an
effort by Lord Horatio Nelson (1758-1805) to
keep young midshipmen and cabinboys from wiping
their noses on their sleeves. In the days
of sail, young boys, often as young as nine
years old, would sign on sailing ships as cabinboys,
usually becoming midshipmen as they got older.
Many, particularly on their first voyages, would
become homesick, tearfully attending to their
duties in their fancy gentlemen's uniform.
That uniform had no pockets for a handkerchief,
so the young boys would, like all young boys,
wipe their noses on their sleeves. To
break his cabingboys and midshipmen of this
ungentlemanly habit, Lord Nelson had large brass
buttons sewn on the sleeves of all midshipmen
and cabinboy uniforms. The decorative
value of the buttons was soon realized, and
in short order, London tailors were adding decorative
buttons to frocks, coats and dinner jackets.
Though the buttons have become less gaudy, the
Whether it's true or
a myth, it does make a dandy story, doesn't
Just like anything
else in the fashion industry, what begins as
utilitarian quickly takes on decorative dimensions.
Buttons were originally made of wood or bone
and were simple cigar shapes. Then they
became round. And square. And large.
And diminutive. Materials varied widely,
too. Buttons have been made of leather,
china, pottery, glass, gems, paper, metal...
in short, just about everything.
Some buttons are miniature
works of art, crafted by silversmiths and potters,
or hand-painted with floral designs, portraits
or familiar scenes from well-known fables.
Individual military or civil authority units
quickly adopted specialized designs that were
only used on their garments and nowhere else.
For a time, buttons
became larger than could possibly be functional.
In fact, men's clothing at one point sported
buttons the size of small dinner plates!
As for why buttons
on men's clothing are on the opposite side of
the garment from women's, this again was a bow
to convention. Most people are right-handed.
Men generally dressed themselves, so their buttons
are on the right. Women, on the other
hand, at least those who could afford garments
with buttons, frequently had a lady's maid to
assist with the dressing process -- so the buttons
were reversed to make it easier for the maid
to do them up.
will collect anything, won't they?
Whether you spare your
buttons a second thought or not, there are avid
collectors who will do just about anything to
get a special button into their hands.
Wonder if it is just a haphazard effort?
You'd be wrong.
- There's a National
Button Society (you can join
for $15, or $2 if you are under 18);
- There are Button
Collecting Societies in almost
every state, and some states have several;
- If you click on
right now, and search in Collectibles, you'll
find people avidly bidding on all kinds of
- There are books,
newsletters and other resources
galore for the button collector;
- There's a "web
ring" (a collection of linked
sites on a particular subject) on the subject
of Button Collecting that includes nearly
In short, button collectors
are everywhere. It's a nice little hobby
(emphasis on LITTLE, since it doesn't take up
as much space as, say, collecting vintage television
sets) and can bring hours of enjoyment, as well
as profit in selling and swapping buttons.
Of course, fresh supplies are everywhere --
at garage sales, swap meets, by mail order,
on old clothes you find in the attic.
Because of the variety
of buttons out there, collectors often specialize
in one kind or another. Some specialties:
- Metal military,
police or fire department buttons
- Buttons from particular
- Vintage Glass buttons
- Porcelain hand-painted
- Novelty buttons
- "Story" buttons
with depictions of various events
- You name it, there's
a category for it.
Here are some sites
to get you started -- but remember, like any
collecting enterprise, buttons quickly become
addictive! Collect at your own risk --
and don't say we didn't warn you!