The earliest known button, according Ian McNeil in An Encyclopedia of the History of Technology,"was originally used more as an ornament than as a fastening, the earliest known being found at Mohenjo-daro in the Indus Valley [now Pakistan]. It is made of a curved shell and about 5000 years old." Early buttons like these usually consisted of a decorative flat face that fit into a loop. (Reinforced buttonholes weren’t invented until the mid-13th century). Percent% Buttons in this period almost never appeared in straight rows, but were used singly as sartorial flourishes.
Along with brooches, buckles, and straight pins, buttons were used in ancient Rome as decorative closures for flowing garments. However, none of these options worked perfectly. Pins poked unsightly holes into precious fabrics. Supporting yards of cloth at a single point required buttons of architectural heft, made of bone, horn, bronze or wood. Some designs took the functional pressure off buttons by knotting the fabric securely into position, then topping off the look with a purely ornamental button.
(Incidentally, as a button alternative, Mycenaeans of the Roman era invented the fibula, a surprisingly modern forerunner to our safety pin. This design was lost with them until it re-emerged in mid-19th century America.)
The button became more prominent among the wealthy in the Middle Ages. “About the middle of the eleventh century,” writes Carl Köhler in A History of Costume, “clothes began to be made so close-fitting that they followed the lines of the body from shoulders to hips like a glove.” Buttons helped that snug fit along. This didn’t mean clothes were cut more sparingly; wealthy people still liked the costly display of excess fabric. But, on both men’s clothes and women’s, buttons helped accentuate lovely lines, of the arm, say, or the bosom.
|Spanish metal button dating from about 1650 to 1675.|
Courtesy Button Country.
The first button-makers guild formed in France in 1250. Still regarded as less-than-functional jewelry, buttons were so prized that sumptuary laws restricted their use. Books, Banks, Buttons and Other Inventions from the Middle Ages by Chiara Frugoni relates how, in a period tale, a magistrate quizzed a woman overly bedecked in buttons.
Buttons came in all shapes and sizes, but most often they were mounted on a shank; you ran thread through the shank’s hole to attach the button to fabric. Unlike modern buttons with their iconic four-square holes, the shank style left the button’s face totally free: a tiny blank canvas one could cover, carve, polish, or paint with luxurious abandon.
The medieval period was the era when wearing lots of buttons meant big money. Franco Jacassi, reputedly the world’s biggest button-collector, describes this as a time when you could pay off a debt by plucking a precious button from your suit. Italians still describe the rooms where powerful leaders meet as stanze dei bottoni, “rooms of the buttons.”
On women’s clothes particularly, buttons traced the body’s lines in suggestive ways, making clothes tight in all the right places or offering up intriguing points of entry. Along with ribbons, laces or bows, buttons were often used on detachable sleeves, a fad that ran from the 13th to 15th centuries. These sleeves could be easily swapped between outfits and laundered whenever they got dirty. Courtiers might accept an unbuttoned sleeve from a lady as a love token, or wave sleeves in jubilation at a jousting tourney.
|18th century buttons, courtesy Button Country|
Ornate buttoning among the wealthy required some help. Around this era is when buttons migrated to different sides of a shirt for men and women. Men usually donned their own shirts, so their buttons faced right for their convenience. Women with ladies’ maids wore their buttons on the left, to make it easier for the maids to maneuver while facing them.
George Washington’s 1789 inauguration gave the world its first political button. Made of copper, brass or Sheffield plate, these buttons could close a pair of breeches or a jacket while simultaneously announcing the wearer’s politics. Political buttons took on a more recognizably modern (and less functional) shape during Lincoln’s 1864 re-election campaign. (View 150 years of political buttons here.)
|A Campaign button for Abraham Lincoln|
Extra buttons made at home could also be sold, which meant button-making could be hellish piecework. Playwright Henrik Ibsen channeled his own awful memories of home button-molding in a pivotal scene in Peer Gynt. Sent to fetch Gynt’s soul, the Button-Moulder explains how the very good and very bad go to heaven and hell, but the middling-good are “merged in the mass” and poured into purgatory, an undifferentiated molten stream from the Button-Moulder’s ladle.
A rash of button patents during this period protected nearly every aspect of button-making, from manufacturing methods for glass or mother-of-pearl buttons, cheaper wire buttons, even improvements to button display cards for sale.
|Black glass buttons courtesy Button Country|
This grand democratization didn’t stem the tide of expensive ornamental buttons. Victorian “Tussie-Mussie” buttons pictured tiny bouquets whose flowers held symbolic messages. Queen Victoria donned mourning buttons of carved black jet upon her husband Albert’s death, kicking off a fashion among bereaved button-wearers throughout the Empire.
Once they became cheap enough to produce en masse, buttons by the hundreds lined most kinds of tight-fitting clothing, including shoes. (More buttons, closely spaced, gave the wearer the tightest fit.) In his book The Evolution of Useful Things, Henry Petroski explains how this profusion of buttons gave rise to a parallel problem: “Fingers were not a very effective tool for coaxing the crowded buttons through small buttonholes.”
|Early 20th century button hook|
The solution? Buttonhooks, long crochethook-like devices used to draw buttons through holes rapidly. These evolved into various styles to accommodate different button sizes.
Tracing the body’s curves with increasing exactness, buttons have long equaled body consciousness. In the 20th century, button’s sexier side came more overtly to the fore. Buttons, in other words, designate sites of vitality, embarrassment, and thrill. When told that a certain lady wouldn’t hurt a fly, Dorothy Parker retorted, “Not if it was buttoned up.” Gertrude Stein’s slim volume Tender Buttons (1914) is winkingly named after the clitoris. Electrical devices, newly introduced, often used flat-faced “buttons” to complete a circuit, giving rise to double entrendre phrases like “press all my buttons."
|Fabric-printed garter button used by flappers|
Later in the century, buttons migrated as a metaphor from the mechanical world to the virtual one. Buttons now adorn screens big and small, promising to connect us to marvels with a single click. Steve Jobs said of the buttons on Apple’s touchscreens, “We made [them] look so good you'll want to lick them.”
Buttons, in short, offer everyday pleasures. Their little faces turn up agreeably, asking for personality to be impressed upon them. Buttoning oneself up is a slower, contemplative act; unbuttoning someone else, deliciously more so. Pressing buttons still delivers everything we love in the world to us. Why would we ever phase that out?
Charlene Raddon is a multi-published author of historical romance novels set in the American West. She is also a graphics designer.