A British button dealer once claimed it was more challenging to write a list of materials from which 19th-century buttons were not made than to detail the substances from which they were made. Our antique button collection showcases pieces manufactured from a seemingly infinite variety of materials, including several kinds of metal, shells, pearl, porcelain, enamel, and glass, to name just a few.
We adore them all but are most intrigued by antique inlay buttons made from papier-mâché and horn. These are some of our collection's most curious, rare, and complex 19th-century buttons.
Horn and papier-mâché were practical 19th-century precursors to plastic. Their malleability made them easy to form, while soft surfaces accommodated appealing decorations. Once finished, these buttons were as beautiful as they were long-lasting.
Papier-mâché and horn buttons are often intricately and artistically decorated with gorgeous inlays. Inlay means decorating an object by pressing layers of fine materials onto its surface.
Inlay button makers adorned their tiny tableaus with nautilus pearl, pinchbeck silver, mother-of-pearl, bone, ebony, and tortoise shell. Buttons offer a small canvas, so most inlay designs are simple, usually depicting a bird, a building, a flower, or geometric shapes like a square from a patchwork quilt.
Horn and bone were among the first materials industrious humans developed to make buttons, with a history stretching back to the 14th century. They remained popular until plastics were invented and became commercially available in the early 20th century.
Horn's natural characteristics are inherently suited to manufacturing buttons. It's made of keratin, a fibrous structural protein found in human hair and in animals' horns, claws, and hooves. Keratin is strong and naturally withstands wear and tear. It can be split and pressed into thin sheets or molded into almost any shape with a combination of moisture, heat, and pressure.
Horn buttons were created by slicing, heating, molding, and then dying the horns and hooves of common farm animals like cows and pigs. Later in the 19th century, inlay buttons were molded from ground horns mixed with an adhesive.
A card of Victorian horn buttons from our button museum.
Horn buttons were decorated while still soft enough from heating to have sparkly bits pressed into their surfaces. After the inlays were applied, the buttons were polished until they were smooth.
Some horn buttons were also bleached and dyed to mimic more expensive and coveted tortoise shell buttons.
It is strange to imagine that many fine miniature works of art began as a cow's hoof or horn.
When we hear "paper mache," many conjure images of glue-soaked newspaper and balloons transformed into rudimentary puppet heads in our elementary school art classes. Most folks don't know that history of papier-mâché is much more elegant.
Using mashed paper to create useful and beautiful household objects has a history as old as the paper itself. The Chinese invented papier-mâché after they invented paper in the 2nd century. It's manufactured by layering damp pieces of paper and vegetable matter, pressing them into sheets with iron molds, and then drying them in an oven. Once dry, the paper is coated with multiple layers of varnish in a process called Japanning, thus waterproofing it and making it ready for decoration.
The European papier-maché industry flourished in France in the 1650s when industrious entrepreneurs started making small decorative household objects from paper stripped from outdated billboards. The first German papier-maché factory opened in the 1760s. During this time, Russia also gained world renown for lovely hand-painted papier-maché boxes displaying bucolic rural landscapes and scenes from Russian folklore.
By the middle of the 18th century, opulent European homes and palaces were decorated with inlay-adorned lacquered papier-maché snuff boxes, trays, and screens. Ostentatious yet beautiful papier-mâché furniture, inlaid with lustrous nautilus shell and mother-of-pearl, also exploded in popularity in the early 19th century.
Victorians thought that if something was suitable for decorating their homes, it was also suited to embellishing their clothing. Thus papier-mâché buttons inlaid with nautilus and abalone shells rose in popularity in the 1860s and remained so until the 1890s.
The best papier-mâché button workshops were located in Birmingham, England. Here button artists cut blanks from papier-mâché button boards glued onto light wooden bases. They then used the Japanning process to coat the surfaces with black lacquer. Most, but not all, papier-maché was black. Some items had green, red, or yellow backgrounds, but these are hard to find today.
Tiny decorative pieces of shell, pearl, brass, or bone were attached to the tacky lacquer before it dried. The Birmingham button makers developed a process to grind and polish the nautilus shells to remarkable thinness of 0.2-0.4 millimeters. These sheets were then stenciled with asphaltum and dipped in hydrochloric acid. The acid dissolved the parts of the shell not protected by the asphaltum. The result was identically shaped pieces of pearl ready to be inlaid onto the papier-mâché surfaces on the buttons.
Once the embellishments were complete, the buttons were repeatedly varnished, ground, and polished until the surface was completely smooth.
We find it miraculous that these delicate, intricate buttons have survived for over a century. We're also amazed by the energy and activity that went into making them. Materials were gathered and processed with heat, steam, and dye, while shells were harvested from distant waterways, sliced, cut with acid, and polished. Then skilled craftsmen molded, pressed, decorated, varnished, and polished them into existence.
They are true treasures that could never be made today.
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