Antique buttons are so much more than a pretty face. They’re historical artifacts that we like to think of as breadcrumb trails, left for us by our grandmothers and their grandmothers, each with a tiny hint that helps us understand the lost intimacies of their daily lives.
The eccentric concerns of lost generations were often captured in miniature on buttons. Antique buttons are like tiny talismans of lost ages, each and every one with a story. Whether it’s a tale of cataclysmic social change or a frivolous trend, it’s all there to discover. And Victorian age insect buttons carry some of the most weird and wonderful stories of all.
When Queen Victoria first donned her crown in 1837, Britain was an agrarian nation. Most people lived in rural villages and the seasons ruled their daily lives. Time was marked by sunrises and sunsets, so the time on clocks often varied from one village to the next by ten minutes.
However, Britain was on the precipice of colossal change because the steam engine, invented by James Watt in 1769, was on the verge of upsetting everything. Steam engines were fast, powerful, and could work independently of natural power sources. Steam was a servant to neither season nor sunshine.
Image: Punch cartoons from the 1870s lampooning high fashion’s obsession with insects in fashion accessories.
During the early years of Victoria’s reign, steam-powered factories popped like mushrooms in cities throughout Britain and people fled the countryside to pursue the economic opportunities they provided. Clocks were nationally aligned and the days when work was dictated by season and sunshine faded to obscurity.
Industrialization improved the lives of many and gave rise to a new social designation called the middle class. However, this newly minted social group found themselves living in squalid, polluted, noisy and poorly planned cities. So it’s not surprising that a national obsession with nature and natural history arose alongside rapid urbanization.
Charles Darwin's Origin of the Species was required reading among the Victorian middle classes and it fueled their infatuation with all things nature. Idle Victorian middle class women sought to bring the countryside to their urban parlors by cultivating ferns under crystal domes and raising frogs in glass vivariums.
As is the case with many trends, the Victorian enthusiasm for nature leaked into fashion accessories. Victorian women pinned birds nests and moss on their hats, adorned their hairdos with live fireflies and hummingbirds, and attached living beetles on tiny leashes to their bodices. In this context it seems less surprising that Victorian women adorned their gowns with fasteners depicting beetles, spiders and house flies and accented their bustles with buttons depicting bees and dragonflies.
In fact, next to flowers, bugs are the most common motif on Victorian buttons in our collection. The most popular bugs on buttons are butterflies and dragonflies likely because their amazing capacity for transformation made them apt symbols of salvation and change. Their graceful forms also lent themselves well to popular art styles of the day including Aesthetic Movement and Art Nouveau.
Beetles are the third most popular insect depicted on Victorian buttons but their popularity was linked to a different obsession. In the late nineteenth century, several discoveries by British archaeologists caused Egyptomania to grip the nation, a trend that continued until the discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1923.
Image: Three droll antique anthropomorphic insect buttons ready for mounting in our museum.
Egyptians worshipped the scarab beetle, regarding it as a representation of the Sun God Ra. Egyptomania prompted new interest in this omnipresent creeper and gained it consistent popularity in art, jewelry and buttons that lasted until the 1930s.
Collecting the insect kingdom buttons was a joy! We’re thrilled to share this creepy compilation with all of you. We’ve collected buggy buttons in almost all of our favorite materials including champleve’ enamel, carved ocean pearl, cut steel, stamped brass, and pewter. We hope you enjoy them as much as we do.