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Crazy for Porcelain

We love porcelain buttons because they memorialize the artistic talents of women in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. 

Women have always pursued inventive hobbies to show off their artistic capabilities. While our mothers may have done needlework, pottery, or crocheted blankets, their mothers and grandmothers might have hand-painted dreamy, impressionistic floral patterns on porcelain buttons. 

Hand-painting china emerged as a fashionable hobby among middle and upper-class housewives around 1876 because of a popular porcelain display at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition (the first world fair held in the USA). In fact, a contemporary observer commented that the exhibit “sent china painting like a prairie flame across the wide expanse of the land.” 

(L) A kit of china painting supplies could be ordered for just $4.00. (R) China shirt waist button shapes and sizes from the 1910 Thayer & Chandler's china catalog. Illustrations from "Painted Porcelain Jewelry and Buttons" by Dorothy Kamm.

Painting porcelain also gained traction because a growing number of women were finding themselves with extra leisure time. Women still, for the most part, did not work outside the home and the expanding middle classes usually employed servants to do domestic work.

The British Aesthetic and American Arts and Crafts movements, which aspired to bring more beauty to quotidian life, bolstered the trend. These movements flourished between 1860 and 1900 in reaction to the ugliness and materialism of the Industrial Revolution and advocated for creating “art for art’s sake.” So women at leisure took up the cause and hand-painting porcelain became a craze. 

Manufacturers hopped on the trend and produced a variety of blank porcelain brooches and buttons, as well as tableware and other bric-a-brac, for home painting. Women formed china-painting clubs and invited professionals to teach classes. They made Mary Louise McLaughlin’s book China Painting: A Practical Manual for the Use of Amateurs a best seller. Companies sold enamels, brushes, and even portable kilns through the mail-order catalogs, thus launching the still-burgeoning art and craft supply industry.

Victorians loved floral patterns so it’s not surprising that most of the porcelain buttons in our collection are decorated with impressionistic flowers. Floriography, which was popular at the time, ascribes meaning to flower varieties. Red roses signify love, pink roses happiness, violets faithfulness, and forget-me-nots, not surprisingly, remembrance.

Most of the buttons in our collection were fastened to clothing with a stud rather than being sewed onto the garment. This was so they could be easily removed before laundering which at the time included running clothing through a wringer, which of course would shatter porcelain buttons.

(L) An Edwardian "waist", which were blouses created to be worn with skirts, made famous by the "Gibson Girl" illustrations of Charles Dana Gibson. (R) Women often painted sets of three studs and a brooch to be worn with their cotton linen "waists." Such sets were extremely popular birthday and Christmas presents.

Each porcelain button in our collection is one of a kind because these tiny pieces of art were hand-painted in living rooms not mass-produced in factories. The fact that they survived the decades, eventually making their way to us, testifies to their ingenuity and beauty. 

Women have created art throughout the centuries but have not generally received the warranted recognition. We created this jewelry line to preserve, and celebrate domestic arts, and give them some well-deserved appreciation. 

We hope these pieces become heirlooms passed down through the generations of your family. Can you think of a better way to celebrate Mother’s Day?

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