We have tens of thousands of Victorian-era buttons in our St. Francisville design studio in rural Louisiana. After three decades of collecting, we remain endlessly amused and intrigued by their subject matter. For us, antique buttons are like tiny crystal balls that provide glimpses of the past, rather than predict the future.
Buttons were an integral part of domestic life in the Victorian era. So their decoration reflects Victorian social mores, hobbies, and values and gives us insights into 19th-century family life.
Recently we've become fascinated by what buttons tell us about Victorians and their pets. Pet keeping, and more importantly, pampering, is a 19th-century Victorian invention. In fact, it was the Victorians who initiated our current societal obsession with fur babies. Without them, we'd likely be living in a world without cat videos.
Pet keeping, wasn't generally accepted in Europe until the late 18th-century. Until then, pets were regarded as elite extravagances. Small dogs frequently appeared in satirical prints of aristocratic ladies, as symbols of frivolity and indulgence. Pet owners, particularly females, were considered feather-brained consumers who spent their money in absurd ways.
Matthew Darly Cloe’s Cushion or the Cork Rump, from the British Museum, portrays how pet keeping was seen in 1777 as something only cosseted aristocratic women indulged in.
Animals were expected to earn their keep or be eaten by their owners. Cats were tolerated outdoors because they killed vermin and mice. People kept rabbits because they could eat them when times were hard.
Pet-keeping became more culturally acceptable in the 19th-century because of a growing interest in homemaking and domestic life. The industrial revolution was in full swing, and people moved en masse from rural agricultural areas to noisy, filthy cities. As a result, Victorians started to idealize home and domestic life as a sacred space where their families could escape the urban squalor.
Pets were thought to enhance the domesticity of a home so they gained an essential role in family life and were imbued with new moral values. They were portrayed in paintings and illustrations alongside family members for the first time.
Suspense by Charles Burton Barber, 1894.
Caring for a pet came to be regarded as character-building and beneficial for children, particularly boys. Starting around the 1840s, parents' advice books and children's literature encouraged the keeping of small animals like rabbits, guinea pigs, and birds to teach children to be caring and responsible.
Sympathy by Briton Rivière, 1877
Dogs were the most common Victorian pet. Queen Victoria loved and spoiled her dogs, especially her pugs. Dogs were thought to have virtuous characteristics that echoed the values of the Victorian human world in that they were seen as steadfast, loyal, and courageous.
The card of dog buttons from our Button Museum. We have at least ten times more antique dog buttons than cat buttons in our collection.
Victorians attempted to domesticate a strange menagerie of animals. These included mice, squirrels, badgers, hedgehogs, and birds of all kinds. Many manuals were published outlining how to capture, tame, and care for these poor creatures. The artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti kept a wombat as a pet, collector Walter Rothschild kept a tamed zebra and Charles Dickens famously featured a fictionalized version of his pet raven, Grip, in his novel Barnaby Rudge.
Poor and working-class families were known to capture wild birds like blackbirds, linnets, and thrushes to keep as pets, often hanging the cages outside their windows and feeding them scraps.
Ravens and owls were popular pets among middle and upper-class families. Reverend J. G. Wood claimed in his famous book Our Domestic Pets, published in 1871, that, "There are worse pets to be found than owls." He wrote, "By proper management, owls can be made into very companionable birds, quaint, grotesque, and affectionate withal."
The card of antique critters buttons from our Button Museum. These buttons exemplify the menagerie of animals that could be found both in Victorian homes and on Victorian clothing.
Reverend Wood also wrote that his own family had "been for some months undecided whether we shall have a raven or not. We would greatly like to possess one of these birds, but then we know he would pull up all our newly-sown seeds, get into the milk-pail, tear our papers to pieces, and, in short, spoil everything within his reach." At the end of the 19th century, wild ravens were rare in Britain because many were captured to keep as pets.
Advice manuals on capturing a pet squirrel urged people to grab them from trees when they were babies since the young ones were easier to tame. One manual advised that if you were to solicit outside help, not to accept a dopey squirrel, as it was likely hopped up on laudanum and would probably soon expire.
The author of a famous manual published in 1851 noted that squirrels were best kept "in little ornamental kennels, with a platform to sit on, and a little chain to fasten to a collar around the neck." The manual also advised allowing the squirrel to roam free in your house. It said, "The squirrel will run around the cornice of a room, and if it is richly carved, it will peep out between the leaves and flowers in a very amusing manner."
While the Victorians celebrated pets, there was less consciousness of the harm that might be caused to animals by removing them from their natural habits. Hedgehogs, for example, were frequently captured and sold at London's Leadenhall Market. Their willingness to eat black beetles made them valuable in London kitchens. But caring for and feeding them was not well understood, so most didn't survive long. Wild parrots and monkeys imported from the colonies were also popular choices among the wealthiest families.
The Victorians did not perceive anything cruel or immoral about keeping such pets. Taking animals directly from the wild only became less acceptable well into the 20th century.
We have buttons in our collection featuring all these creatures. Dogs and birds are especially common. However, we rarely find buttons depicting house cats because cats were not commonly adopted as house pets in the Victorian era. In the 19th century, cats were considered sly and calculating utility animals and people did not feed them.
The card of antique cat buttons from our Button Museum. This picture displays the entirety of our Victorian cat button collection, which explains why we were so thrilled to find the Czech glass cat button mold.
Their reputation wasn’t improved by their traditional association with witches. Cats were often referred to as having the same disposition as prostitutes. In 1855 Alphonse Toussenel published an article in Zoologies Passionelle stating, "An animal so keen on maintaining her appearance, so silky, so tiny, so eager for caresses, so ardent and responsive, so graceful and supple, an animal that makes the night her day, and shocks decent people with the noise of her orgies, can have only one single analogy in this world and that is of a feminine kind."
In the thousands of years that cats have lived alongside people, inviting a cat indoors became standard only after the invention of tinned cat food and kitty litter in the 1920s.
So when we discover antique or vintage buttons featuring cats we get extra excited! If you find one we are sure it will bring you good luck!