The materials used to make buttons

The art of collecting beautiful buttons

To fasten and ornament the clothing of the American people, billions of buttons are manufactured every year. Buttons have been used since ancient times. In the tombs of Egypt and of Mycenae in Greece have been found buttons of gold, glass, and earthenware from 2,500 to 4,000 years old. They were used only as ornaments. Prehistoric peoples held their garments in place with thorns and with cords made from animal sinews. Later, loose flowing robes were fastened with a girdle or a pin.

Button Collecting as a Hobby

Early buttons were made by a skilled craftsmen. As a result they were expensive and were not discarded with worn-out garments. They were used repeatedly, then bequeathed to the next generation.

A popular hobby today is collecting these old buttons. many of them are works of art with interesting histories. The National Button Society sponsors an annual exhibition of collections and awards prizes. Some collectors specialize in pewter, procelain, enamel, bone, silver, or gold buttons. Others gather animal, flower, insect, ship, or historical subjects. Buttons made by Josiah Wedgwood for 18th-century costumes, buttons depiciting fairy tales, portrait heads of famous women, Biblical scenese, and scenes from operas are the subject matter of specialized collections.

Plastic buttons

Most of the buttons produced in the United States are made of plastics. Plastic material is sometimes more expensive than the material it replaces; but it lends itself more readily to mass production with automatic machinery. 

Casein, made from skim milk, is used for buttons in which color and fine appearance are important. They do not wear well with repeated laundering.

Practically all staple buttons, the design of which does not change from year to year, are made with urea. Urea buttons are relatively inexpensive and durable. Melamine buttons are a cheap imitation of pearl buttons, but they are stronger and stand washing better. They are used especially on men's shirts.

Pearl and Vegetable Ivory Buttons

Pearl buttons are made of mussel shells. Thousands of tons are obtained every year from the TVA reservoirs of the Tennessee River. The shells are soaked in vats of water for several days. Then, while held in specially designed tongs, they are cut int blanks by a cylindrical steel saw. The blanks are sent to the finishing plant to be turned, polished, dyed, and have holes bored through them.

New York and New Jersey also manufacture freshwater pearl buttons, but these states are the major centers for the more expensive ocean pearl buttons. They are made from the white shell of West Australia, the yellow shell of Manila, and the black shell of Tahiti. Machines cut out the button pieces from the shell with tubular saws, split them into disks, drill the holes, and smooth and polish them - all with practically no hand labor.

Another important materiabl is vegetable ivory. This is the nut of thel lagua (also called corozo) palm, which grows in the jungles of Ecuador, Colombia, and Panama. Large clusters of 15 to 100 nuts, enclosed in tough, woody burs, grow close to the stumpy trunk of the tree. The clusters may be as large as a man's head. Each nut is about the size of a hen's egg.

Laborers in the forests cut down the burs and chop them open with a machete. The nuts are carried on mule back and river raft to export centers on the coast. They may be shipped to the button manufacturers as whole nuts or they may first be sawed into flat slices. The slices are run through sizing machines and then are shipped in loose-mesh bags. At the factory they are shaped and dyed. Vegetable ivory absorbs coloring matter readily and so can be dyed to match or contrast with various materials. Most of the output is used on suits and overcoats. Ecuador is the chief source of supply for Tagua nuts. Some Italian button manufacturers use the nut of the palma dum of Egypt as a substitute for tagua nuts. Most of the output is bought by the clothing trade for use on men's and boy's coats, vests, trousers, and overcoats and on women's suits and coats.