Victorian perfume buttons are precious commodities in our studio as well as perennial favorites with our customers. We hoard the ones we find while button hunting, releasing them into our jewelry designs sparingly, occasionally placing a single one in a bracelet or necklace, which inevitably sells out immediately.
However, when Valentine’s Day rolls around, we use them in our yearly romance-related limited edition designs with what feels like wanton abandon. This is because they come with a fascinating history and story steeped in romance and love like a strong cup of tea.
Perfume buttons on display in our St. Francisville button museum.
Perfume buttons were popular from the mid to late nineteenth century in both the United States and Europe. They typically feature a tiny piece of velvet laid over a metal button back with an overlay of decorative, highly ornate, openwork brass.
They were primarily used for the practical purpose of securing the closure of a woman's bodice or gown, typically with a row of twenty or more buttons. No wonder affluent Victorian women often required help getting dressed.
However, more interestingly, Victorian women used the velvet affixed to the back of these storied buttons to absorb and carry their scent. Victorian perfumes were oil-based, most often derived from floral or botanical sources like roses, bergamot, lemon, and lavender. They were very similar to modern-day essential oils.
Like all oils, Victorian-era perfumes easily stained clothing. So women would protect their fancy gowns by dabbing their scents onto the absorbent velvet on the back of their buttons. The result was a hint of perfume that lingered in rooms, like a pleasant wake, wherever the woman went.
This in itself was nice but not over the top romantic. However, things heated up when women started sewing their scented buttons under their lover's lapels so her man would be reminded of her while they were apart.
This practice was incredibly poetic when a man was leaving to go to war. Far from home, in terrifying and dangerous circumstances, the familiar distinctive scent of his beloved would bring him comfort and courage.