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Home > Info > Articles >Button Identification and Cleaning by Christen Brown

Button Identification and Cleaning by Christen Brown

sample of vintage metal buttons
sample of vintage metal buttons

metal picture buttons
sample of vintage metal picture buttons

vintage metal buttons
sample of new Pewter from Norway, and vintage nickel Strawberry button.


Metal

These buttons were made from a variety of pure metals and alloys. Though you may find an occasional sterling, gold or pewter button, most metal buttons were made from brass and copper.
CC- if these buttons are one- piece they can be cleaned with water and dried quickly. If the metals was iron or steel (these are magnetic0 the metal will rust if it gets wet, do not use water on these buttons. Try rubbing with a soft cloth to clean and polish the surface.

Some brass and copper buttons had a painted on colored surface that will come off with water. Some metal buttons also had an enamel finish such as cloisonné or champleve or guilloche. Metal buttons that are two-part may have cardboard in between the layers of metal.
CC- to clean all of these types of metal buttons try using a kneaded gray art eraser or rub with a soft cloth to clean. Do not use water on
any of these buttons.

During WWII when metals were scarce a nickel composition was used. These pieces are light silver in color, the metals is very soft and will not tarnish. Most of this type of button had rhinestones or plastic decorations.
CC- Try rubbing gently with a soft cloth to clean and polish the surface. The rhinestones may have to be re-glued because glue shrinks with time.

New metal buttons can be found in a variety of metals and from all around the world. Pewter is very popular and can be finished to resemble other metals. Sterling, yellow bronze and brass buttons can also be found.
CC- Try rubbing with a soft cloth to polish the surface.

glass buttons
sample of vintage Czech glass buttons

Molded Glass

The molded glass buttons became very popular in the Victorian Era- 19th century. The dark colors of this people led to deep burgundies, purples and blues. During the 1940’s Germany and Czechoslovakia were the major producers of glass buttons. These buttons were made in lively colors with additional painting on the surface of the button.

New buttons are being made again in Czechoslovakia using old molds in new and different colors. This type of button can hold its beauty through time because the color of the glass does not fade or discolor. The shank can be sew-through style, molded or inserted metal shank.
CC- If the design of the button is not painted on, the button can be gently cleaned in a mild solution of hand soap and water. Dry immediately. Otherwise try rubbing with a soft cloth or an old toothbrush to clean and polish the surface. The shanks were usually made from brass, and tarnishing is usually not an issue with glass buttons.

sample of vintage China buttons
sample of vintage China buttons

China Buttons and Transfer Buttons

These china buttons were made for the working class as a mainstay and used on sturdy dependable clothing. They were made for men shirts, women's dresses, and underwear. These were manufactured both in Europe, England and the United States between the 1840's to as late as the 1930's. The designs range from "calicoes" at the top to "stencils" at the bottom. The buttons were decorated by a transfer pattern much like china plates and cups.
CC- Try rubbing with a soft cloth or an old toothbrush to clean and polish the surface. These buttons all have holes to stitch onto the fabric with.

cellusample of vintage celluloid disc buttonsloid button discs
sample of vintage celluloid disc buttons

sample of vintage celluloid and metal buttons
sample of vintage celluloid and metal buttons

vintage buttons
sample of vintage and new glass and celluloid buttons

Celluloid

Celluloid was the first man made plastic made from natural ingredients during the late 19th century. It was an extremely versatile medium that was used up to the 1940’s. It could be molded, stamped, machine tooled, hollow blown and more. It had a major flaw in that fact it was highly flammable. These pieces came in a variety of styles and colors. They ranged from fanciful creations to imitations of other materials such as wood and ivory. Celluloid is very lightweight and easily cracks because it was a thinner plastic than Bakelite. Celluloid can be tinted and then molded or painted after the object is molded.
CC- To clean try rubbing with a soft cloth or an old toothbrush to clean and polish the surface. The shanks were usually made from brass, and tarnishing is usually not an issue with glass buttons.

Bakelite

Though it was invented in 1909 as the first synthetic plastic it was not used for buttons until 1920. Bakelite belonged to the 1930’s and 40’s. It was often used in Realistic's, which were made to resemble natural materials such as wood, metal, ivory and glass. Bakelite is a very heavy plastic in comparison to celluloid. The colors tend to be opaque rather than transparent. The plastic itself is colored. Clear Bakelite will discolor over time. Do not use any chemicals on this substance, for they will slowly melt through the surface.
CC- To clean try rubbing with a soft cloth or an old toothbrush to clean and polish the surface. The shanks were usually made from brass, and tarnishing is usually not an issue with glass buttons.

Lucite

Lucite was a material developed by Dupont, and used for buttons in the 1950’s. Many of these buttons were intaglio-carved in relief and set into a darker color or painted from behind. Unlike Bakelite the Lucite does not discolor through time.
CC- To clean try rubbing with a soft cloth or an old toothbrush to clean and polish the surface. The shanks were usually made from brass, and tarnishing is usually not an issue with glass buttons.

sample of vintage and new Mother of Pearl: MOP buttons
sample of vintage and new Mother of Pearl: MOP buttons

sample of vintage and new Mother of Pearl: MOP buttons
sample of vintage and new Mother of Pearl: MOP buttons

Mother of Pearl-MOP

These are probably the most common of the vintage buttons, not only because of their beauty but the availability as well. They can be found in their natural state carved, mixed with other materials such as metal and rhinestones; they can be dyed, or painted with images. The MOP is easily identified with the white shell with pink AB of almost rainbow colors.
Other shell buttons were made from abalone; green, brown and peach muscle; Tahiti shell and others. The buttons were made as sew through, metal shank or self shank- these being from the Troca shell.
Shell buttons are still a favorite by designers today and can be found carved by hand or laser; hand painted and or dyed; mixed with metals and other materials.

The nacre that is important to the pearl is to the shell button as well. Over washing and drying in the dryer can damage and chip the shell that is made in layers.
CC- To clean these first try buffing them with a terry cloth towel. If this does not remove the dirt try washing them with a toothbrush dipped in a mild solution of hand soap. Dry immediately. Keep in mind that too much water and abrasion can remove the nacre on the surface of the button. Hand painted and dyed buttons should not be washed.

sample of vintage composition buttons
sample of vintage composition buttons

Composition Buttons: Molded Horn

Horn was a popular medium used in the 19th century. It can be heated and pressed into a mold; carved and inlayed with other materials. Due to it’s porous nature it can be dyed as well. The colors take on a soft natural hue. Natural horn and carved horn can be found currently today.
CC- Try gently rubbing with a soft cloth to clean and polish the surface.

tagua nut buttons

Vegetable Ivory- or Tagua Nut from the Corozo Palm

This nut comes from the Corozo Palm that grows in South America. It is a hard, versatile nut that can be carved and dyed. It has been used since the 19th century s an alternative to ivory because the striations of the nut resemble those in ivory. It is softer than bone. The dyes tend to be naturals hues of brown, tan black and green/ the dye only absorbs on the surface layer, so the carving is left as the natural color of the nut. The tagua nut was popular from 1890- 1920, but has found resurgence since 1990.
CC- Try rubbing with a soft cloth to polish the surface.

sample of vintage Good Year Tire Rubber buttons
sample of vintage Good Year Tire Rubber buttons

Rubber

Good Year Tire Company made durable buttons for work and military clothes in the latter part of the 19th century.

Wood

Wood has been used probably as long as buttons have been needed. Many types of wood have been used. Some pieces have other woods inlayed as well as shell, metal and bone/
CC- Try gently rubbing with a soft cloth to clean and polish the surface.

Christen Brown

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