The history of the humble button

PUBLISHED: 09:31 18 June 2008 | UPDATED: 21:56 15 June 2010

EVER since cavemen used pieces of bone as toggles to keep animal skins wrapped around their bodies, simple fastenings have been used the world over.

EVER since cavemen used pieces of bone as toggles to keep animal skins wrapped around their bodies, simple fastenings have been used the world over. Buttons have become a topic of fascination for many in East Devon, following Hospiscare's winter collection campaign. The Herald-supported the fund raising initiative, led by Bridget Hallowes. She was so enthused by the response that she joined the Button Society. Button fan Elizabeth Thurgood, of Cotleigh, explains the history of the button and shows off her Pearly Queen outfit.WHEN material was woven, small pieces of cloth were sewn into tight knots and used as fastenings. Archaeologists found some of these when the site of the royal wardrobes was excavated in the area of Blackfriars Bridge. They dated back to the 6th Century.People in oriental countries still use this method of fastening clothes today.Everyone uses buttons. They have not only been functional, but some are tiny works of art.As fashions change, so do buttons - those used for fastening and those used for decoration.My love of buttons started as a child when I was given grandmother's button box to play with. My sisters and I were taught to count with buttons and, at an early age, we were taught how to sew buttons on garments. Buttons were early educational toys, although I did not know it at the time.Button boxes were treasure chests to me, and still are!You never know what you will find among the buttons - a broken brooch, the odd coin, etc, always add to the interest of a button box.Clothes that were worn and mended and finally deemed better off in the rag bag had buttons cut off. They were kept in a special box for future use, to be recycled or, as I used to say in my younger days, to make do and mend.Buttons have been made from all manner of materials - horn, bone, wood, cloth, leather, glass, mother of pearl, shell, enamel, hardened clay (not good for washing!), plastics, manmade fibres, silver, gold and precious stones.They come in all shapes and sizes.Even in the 21st Century some religious sects will not use buttons for fastening, considering them to be articles of vanity. On the other hand, buttons have been worn to show the wealth of the wearer. Records tell us of noblemen in the 16th Century who could not afford to pay their merchants. They would cut off some of their buttons to settle accounts. These buttons were probably made of silver. Perhaps, this is where the saying "paid with buttons" comes from. Not sure if Tesco would be happy to accept payment in this way.Throughout the centuries, as fashions changed, laws were passed about buttons. In the 17th Century French law stated buttons had to be covered in silk to protect the silk trade. While in England, at the end of the 17th Century, fabric buttons were prohibited. Metal ones were insisted upon - to encourage the metal industry.Nineteenth Century Dorset buttons were made with rings of metal or bone and had thread woven around the rings. This was a task carried out by girls and women, quite often in workhouses.Buttons have been used to adorn clothes. The Pearly Kings and Queens used pearl buttons to cover their outfits.Today it is becoming fashionable to decorate clothes and handbags with buttons. I have seen necklaces, bracelets, napkin rings, bags of all descriptions and sizes, all covered with buttons.Button collecting is a fascinating hobby and there are button clubs in Britain. In America, they have button conferences and exhibitions.It is an absorbing hobby and one that can cost just a few pence to get started.Happy hunting!


If you value what this story gives you, please consider supporting the Midweek Herald. Click the link in the orange box above for details.

Most Read

Most Read

Latest from the Midweek Herald