After flowers, birds are the most popular motif depicted in antique Victorian. When it comes to buttons, Victorian-era women were obsessed, so it’s not surprising that the variety and detail of bird patterns pictured on buttons manufactured in this era is astonishing. Over the years, we’ve collected antique Victorian buttons featuring swallows, parrots, owls, roosters, hummingbirds, eagles, doves, crows, swans, herons, cranes, quail, pheasants, and even ostriches.
A bird card from our museum shows some of the variety of birds on Victorian buttons including storybook birds, a stork, swallows, a falcon, a hummingbird, and a peacock. The card is the largest of the ‘buttons by subject’ cards in our button museum, which shows how popular birds were in the Victorian era. The card they are displayed on is a die-cut illustration used by Victorians to decorate scrapbooks.
Most of the bird buttons in our collection feature tiny, meticulous renditions of birds in their natural habitats. Victorian age button engravers detailed recognizable species, alongside backgrounds of garden lattice, tropical plants, flowers, nests, belfries, and other habitats onto a canvas measuring a half-inch in diameter. They were true artists who worked in the styles of the day, including Art Nouveau, the Aesthetic Movement, Art Deco, and the Arts and Crafts Movement.
Our favorite bird buttons are the whimsical ones, which often feature children's stories and nursery rhymes. The story on which this button was based was written by George Wyndham, who was the Chief Secretary of Ireland, and it tells a sweet tale about a family of rooks (small blackbirds) who found a safe home in the author's neighborhood. These lucky birds were even given umbrellas to protect them from the rain.
The wide variety of natural history motifs featured on Victorian buttons is in keeping with the day's trends. In the nineteenth century, the public was introduced to natural science via museums, botanical gardens, and scientific exhibitions. The Industrial Revolution was well underway, triggering a migration from rural communities to cities which caused people to fetishize nature.
At the same time, charismatic scientists, like Charles Darwin, were sparking people's imagination by collecting natural specimens from around the world and bringing them back to Great Britain for 'exotic' exhibitions. So it's not surprising that birds, along with flowers, wild game animals, insects, and even snakes, were prevalent in the era's decorative arts, including button designs.
Like with most trends, the Victorian obsession with natural history came with some good and bad. Ornithologists estimate that five million birds a year were killed, taxidermied, and sold as fashion accessories for women's hats, dresses, and jewelry at the turn of the century. For a short time, an egret's head plume was worth more than gold.
We think it is much more fun and sustainable to celebrate our planet's beautiful creatures with artistic button designs!