Buttons are more than 3000 years old. Originally worn for decorations, they became a common way to fasten clothing. During the 19th century buttons became mass-produced, as transport and new materials developed. The most popular button was the black glass button, made popular by Queen Victoria following the death of Prince Albert.
The mass-production of buttons during the 19th century meant a huge variety of designs, colours, materials, shapes and sizes could be produced. It removed the handcrafted element of the decoration seen previously to this era. However, this does help buttons to be dated. Buttons were heavier at the beginning of the 1800s, compared to the second half. The stamp of the button maker also helps date the button. Many more makers started business during the button boom and affixed their logo on the back.
Birmingham was the focal point of the button industry during the 19th century. It was a large, bustling, industrial city that had many factories able to manufacture buttons. Buttons from Birmingham can be dated back to the 12th century, and, by 1700, there were more than 100 button makers in the city. Firmin's is a significant manufacturer during the 19th century, along with William Leonard and Co., Allen Moore and William Armfield. Sydney Smith was a prevalent maker of buttons for the British Army in 1900.
Prevalent button makers based in London included Gaunt, Jennens, Pitt, Hawkes and Co. and Robert Bushby. From 1860, Jennens began stamping the Prince of Wales plume on the back of the button so these are particularly easy to identify. Other button makers (such as Gaunt), are noted for supplying livery buttons, or those for notable organisations like British Rail.
Types of Button
Black glass buttons decorated with patterns or symbols were popular during the 19th century. Glass was melted and pushed into a mould to create the large variety of designs. Fabric, characters from plays, plant life or mythological creatures are just a few of the symbols seen on the buttons. Brass buttons were also widespread during the 1800s. They had multiple uses from trousers to military uniforms, school blazers or public servants. The button was made from one piece of bronze and often stamped with the maker on the back.