Bursting at the Buttons!
Buttons have a varied and colorful history. Depending on who you ask, they were invented by the Chinese, or the French, or even cave men. (We tend to go with the Chinese, since they invented a lot of stuff we take for granted today -- like fireworks and silk and spaghetti!)
Buttons weren't really necessary, however, when clothes were primarily large sacks that were put on over the head, or large pieces of cloth draped over the body. It was in the 1300s that more fitted waistlines and even sleeves came into vogue -- and somebody had to find a way to make it possible to get in and out of clothing without the help of three or four other people and a lot of aggravation.
Truth or Myth?
There are also a lot of stories about how men's jackets came to have buttons on the sleeves. Most of them, however, have one thing in common: Noses!
Here's the official U.S. Navy explanation:
"The decorative bone buttons that are today sewn on many suit jackets, sports coats and blazers began as an effort by Lord Horatio Nelson (1758-1805) to keep young midshipmen and cabinboys from wiping their noses on their sleeves. In the days of sail, young boys, often as young as nine years old, would sign on sailing ships as cabinboys, usually becoming midshipmen as they got older. Many, particularly on their first voyages, would become homesick, tearfully attending to their duties in their fancy gentlemen's uniform. That uniform had no pockets for a handkerchief, so the young boys would, like all young boys, wipe their noses on their sleeves. To break his cabingboys and midshipmen of this ungentlemanly habit, Lord Nelson had large brass buttons sewn on the sleeves of all midshipmen and cabinboy uniforms. The decorative
value of the buttons was soon realized, and in short order, London tailors were adding decorative buttons to frocks, coats and dinner jackets. Though the buttons have become less gaudy, the practice continues."
Whether it's true or a myth, it does make a dandy story, doesn't it?
Buttons as Fashion
Just like anything else in the fashion industry, what begins as utilitarian quickly takes on decorative dimensions. Buttons were originally made of wood or bone and were simple cigar shapes. Then they became round. And square. And large. And diminutive. Materials varied widely, too. Buttons have been made of leather, china, pottery, glass, gems, paper, metal... in short, just about everything.
Some buttons are miniature works of art, crafted by silversmiths and potters, or hand-painted with floral designs, portraits or familiar scenes from well-known fables. Individual military or civil authority units quickly adopted specialized designs that were only used on their garments and nowhere else.
For a time, buttons became larger than could possibly be functional. In fact, men's clothing at one point sported buttons the size of small dinner plates!
As for why buttons on men's clothing are on the opposite side of the garment from women's, this again was a bow to convention. Most people are right-handed. Men generally dressed themselves, so their buttons are on the right. Women, on the other hand, at least those who could afford garments with buttons, frequently had a lady's maid to assist with the dressing process -- so the buttons were reversed to make it easier for the maid to do them up.
People will collect anything, won't they?
Whether you spare your buttons a second thought or not, there are avid collectors who will do just about anything to get a special button into their hands. Wonder if it is just a haphazard effort? You'd be wrong.
- There's a National Button Society (you can join for $15, or $2 if you are under 18);
- There are Button Collecting Societies in almost every state, and some states have several;
- If you click on eBay right now, and search in Collectibles, you'll find people avidly bidding on all kinds of buttons;
- There are books, newsletters and other resources galore for the button collector;
- There's a "web ring" (a collection of linked sites on a particular subject) on the subject of Button Collecting that includes nearly 100 sites.
In short, button collectors are everywhere. It's a nice little hobby (emphasis on LITTLE, since it doesn't take up as much space as, say, collecting vintage television sets) and can bring hours of enjoyment, as well as profit in selling and swapping buttons. Of course, fresh supplies are everywhere -- at garage sales, swap meets, by mail order, on old clothes you find in the attic.
Because of the variety of buttons out there, collectors often specialize in one kind or another. Some specialties:
- Metal military, police or fire department buttons
- Buttons from particular countries
- Vintage Glass buttons
- Porcelain hand-painted buttons
- Novelty buttons
- "Story" buttons with depictions of various events
- You name it, there's a category for it.
Intrigued? Learn more!
Here are some sites to get you started -- but remember, like any collecting enterprise, buttons quickly become addictive! Collect at your own risk -- and don't say we didn't warn you!