Buttons and Buttoning Conventions

Figure 1.--Note the ornamental metal buttons on the boy's jacket. Unfortunalely HBC does not have any information on this portrait. It appears to picture a boy in a skeleton suit (note the buttons) with an open ruffled collar. HBC believes it is Dutch and pictures a boy in the early 19th century.

Buttons are discs or knobs on cloth which pass through a slit or loop in a different side of the the cloth or a cloth in another garment to serve as a fastening device. Buttons appear to have initially developed as ornamentatipn in ancient times and only later beren adapted as practical fastening decives. Even so they were still being used for ornamental purposes. In realitevely recent years different buttoning conventions developed for men and women. These can be helpful in helping to identify genders in old photographs.

Linguistcs

The English word has evolved from the Middle English "boton" and the Old French, der. "bouter". The origins in Middle English was presumably "butt" meaning to push with head or horns, a word which we still use.

Historical Background

Buttons or button-like artifacts have been used since pre-history for ornamentation. They have been noted in virtually every imprtant civilization. There are few such examples of artifacts with such cross-cultural apparance. Some cultures such as the Romans may have used them as fastening devices, but this is not proven. Rudimentary buttons appear to be first used for fastening by Europeans in the 13th century, but were much more common in the 14th century. Soon buttons became a status symbol and men competed to see who could have the best, the largest or the most intricate buttons. The display of buttons, especially expensively crafted buttons, during the 16th century became a way to demonstrate one's wealth. Wealthy people might have buttons made of, or set with, precious stones. Some religious groups rebelled against such ostentaion and refused to wear buttons. Hand crafted bittons were common until the 19th century when mass production began. Now most buttons are made of plastic.

Decoration

Buttons are best known as fastening devices. This practical use was not, however, the only use of buttons. They were widely used for decoration. We note them being widely used for decoration in the 19th century, in part because of the number of photographic images available. They were commonly used on jackets in particular. We also notice them bring used on kilt suits. A good example is Bert Dodge, an American boy in the 1880s. There were many buttons used in lines on his kilt skirt.

Countries

Buttons first appeared in Europe during the 13th century. I am not entirely sutre they were evented there. We do not yet have much information on China and other regions. Most of our information is from Europe. We do have some information on American buttons.

European countries

Buttons began to be used as fastners in Europe during the 13th century. We have not yet developed information on trends in individual countries. We do know that ostentatious displays of buttons were reported in various European coirts. Perhaps the greatest such display was a coat worn by French king Francis I (1494-1547) which reportedy had 13,600 gold buttons. Another French king, Louis XIV (1638-1715), had silver-covered bone buttons on the uniforms of his soldiers. Button industries developed in European countries, but we have little information at this time.

America

A HBC reader asks if we have info on a script "S" or script "5" button or fastener from the Revolutionary War period? It was found in N.J." Unfortunately we have only limited information on buttions at this time. America developed its own domestic button industry in the 19th Century. The British blockade in the War of 1812 sped the development of an American industry. Aaron Benedict, Waterbury, CT, bought every brass pot and pan he could get and rolled buttons in his own mill. Covered buttons were introduced in America by S. H. Williston, Easthampton, MA. Hard rubber buttons were tried during the 1840s, but they didn't work very well. Celluloid, a synthetic material was developed to replace expensive ivory. Regency novels often refer to "tapes" used to hold young ladies dresses together at the same time young men are often disparaged because they had "buttons the size of dinner plates" on their jackets and waistcoats. Buttons were still expensive in the early 19th Century. So expensive that they would commonly be rescued from old garments and used on new garments. Typical fancy buttons today might cost $2.50-$15.00--making it still wise to save buttons.


Figure 2.--The fancy blouses made for boys had right buttoning buttons just as more boyish looking shirt waists. Some fancy blouses for boys, however, are back buttoning. HBC is attempting tomassess the development of these conventions.

Conventions

There are well accepted buttoning conventions in modern clothing. There do not, however, appear to have been any standard conventions concerning the placement of buttons even as late as the early 19th Century. Two conventions have developed in modern times concerning the palcement of buttons. The first is a differing button placement for man and women. The widely accepted convention in clothing is that womens clothes button on the left and often at the front. The second is the palcement of buttons on the back of blouses and dresses for women and children. HBC has noted a varieety of explanations concening these conventions. We are not yet sure about the actual development, but we are collecting information and hope to eventually have a more definitive explanation.

Specific Garments

HBC has noted the development of special button arrangements on specif garments. Some garments are especially notable for the use of buttons. We see various suits, including skeleton suits and collar buttoning jackets. The buttons on button-on suits were use both for the practical purpose of hilding up the pants and for decirtion. The buttons on suit sleeves had a purely decorative function. HBC has noted that knee pants which unlike knickers were not closed at the hem, commonly had buttons--isually three buttons at the leg hem. These buttons were purely ornamental. They were not in any way associated with closing the leg. We do not fully understand why they became such an accepted convention. They appdar to emulate the 18th century knee breeches which did have button closures. HBC has noted that knee pants which unlike knickers were not closed at the hem, commonly had buttons--isually three buttons at the leg hem. These buttons were purely ornamental. They were not in any way associated with closing the leg. We do not fully understand why they became such an accepted convention. They appdar to emulate the 18th century knee breeches which did have button closures.

Suit Coat buttons

Buttons wereemployed in several different places on suit coats. We see various suits, including skeleton suits and collar buttoning jackets. The buttons were particularly notable on the military-styled suit jackets worn in the mid-19th century. We see jackets with far more buttons than were needed to close the jacket. These jackets began to become less popular in the 1860s and the number of buttons declined. A goof example is an unidentified American boy in 1865. The buttons at the lower back of frock coats and overcoats are vestiges of customary uses centuries ago, according to Nystrom. These buttons at one time served the purpose of making it possible to open the coat at the back for horseback riding. The buttons at the back also served as fastening for the lower corners of the coat when it was decided to turn them back out of the way.


Figure 3.--It is often difficult to determine gender in old photographs. The front buttons on this child' blouse are a good indicator that it is a boy. The low cut is not a good clue as little boys and girls at the time wore the style of dresses. For confirmation that the child is a boy, click on the image.

Sleeve buttons

The origins of the buttons at the coat sleeves and the imitation buttonholes are also difficult to expain. According to Nystrom, these buttons are vestiges of custom down from the time when outer garments were actually opened at the sleeve, making the button and buttonhole a necessary means of open and closing. Other sources say the style originated in the early 19th century ordered buttons sewn on the jackets of boys who had begun their naval career at a young age. The legend goes that they crued a lot and were constantly wiping their tears and nose with their sleaves. The buttons made this more difficult. Other sources claim that sleeve buttons originated in the 18th century with Frederick the Great of Prussia who didn't like his soldiers spoiling their fancy uniforms by whiping their noses on their sleeves. It was once custommary for gentlemen to button all the buttons on their vest. King Edward VIII seems to have changed that.

Vest buttons

It was once custommary for gentlemen to button all the buttons on their vest. It is said that King Edward VII who enjoyed good food and became quite portly. Once after a substantial meal, the king unbuttoned the bottom button of his vest. His compansions not to embarass the King, also unbuttoned the bottom button of their vests and it became a standard convention in England and other countries.

Knee pants

HBC has noted that knee pants which unlike knickers were not closed at the hem, commonly had buttons--isually three buttons at the leg hem. These buttons were purely ornamental. They were not in any way associated with closing the leg. We do not fully understand why they became such an accepted convention. They appdar to emulate the 18th century knee breeches which did have button closures.


Figure 3.--Notice the prominent use of front buttons on the boy's suit. The photograph was probably taken in the 1860. Note the boy's hat and hair style.

Material

Buttons have been made out of various matrials over time, including wood, metal, mother of pearl, and other materials. Metal buttons were often used on sailor suits. Brass buttons are perhaps the best known metal buttons. The French during the Napoleonic Wars used tin buttons. The Grand Armée that marched into Russia in 1812 had tin buttons. Apparently tin turms to powder a temperatures below 56°F. Certainly that did nothing to assist the Frenbch on their retrat from Moscow. [Le Couteur and Burreson] I am not sure what types of buttons were used on boys clothes such as tunics, smocks, dresses, kilts, Fauntleroy suits, Buster Brown suits, pants, Norfolk jackets, blazers, ect. I will update information as I acquire it. Today of course it is primarily plastic.

Chronology

Some examples exist of button styles overtime:
The 19th century
Early 19th century: Victorian era
Mid 19th century: Victorian era metal buttons
The 20th century

Sources

Le Couteur, Penny and Jay Burreson. Napoleon's Buttons (Tarcher). This fascinating book written by two chemists recountsthe impact of 17 different molecules on history.







HBC





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Created: February 15, 1999
Last updated: 7:31 PM 9/14/2008